July 11, 2002

Pulp Reality
Balkans Theatre of the Bizarre

If, twelve years ago, someone had written a book about the Balkans wars that contained even a tenth of what has actually happened since, they'd have been laughed right out of every publishing house in the world. Truth, as Mark Twain remarked, really is stranger than fiction. That, alas, does not prevent so many events in the Balkans from seeming as if they rolled right off the pages of some cheap, trashy pulp novel. Here are just a few scenes from this theatre of the bizarre.

The Serbian Circus

Three days ago, a court in southern Serbia convicted an Army reservist of a war crime: murdering two Albanian civilians during the 1999 NATO attack.  Ivan Nikolic was originally charged with murder, but the indictment was amended in an effort to show compliance with Imperial demands for "cooperation" on war crimes issues.

Speaking of politics, anyone in Serbia who wants to maintain any shred of sanity is better off without it. Denizens of Serbian political life are so self-absorbed, so out of touch with reality, and obsessed with power (how to get it and how to keep it), that they've long since transcended earthly logic.

Finance minister Bozidar Djelic is thus preparing a tax program based on the notion that any property and any activity, economic or otherwise, exist for the sole purpose of providing income for the state. Though this has been the long-held belief of politicians since time immemorial, Djelic is one of the first to flaunt it. Points for honesty, but definitely not for intelligence or moral fiber.

Dusan Mihajlovic, Serbia's top cop who could make a brilliant career investigating just his own shady past, has just tried to remedy his reputation as an incompetent fool by announcing that the police had "indications" of a plot to assassinate public figures and destabilize the government. According to this brilliant mind, the recent gangland-style killings of two police and intelligence officials are all part of a vast conspiracy to topple the government that does a fine job of doing so all on its own. Little wonder that in Serbian jokes, police officers are the proverbial blonde.

Champions of Civilization

Though its remaining Serbs live in reservations and most of its non-Albanians have been in exile for over three years now, Kosovo's Albanian "prime minister" still hopes for independence of the NATO-occupied province within the next three years. Former KLA member Bajram Rexhepi has certainly learned to mouth the platitudes of democracy and multi-cultural tolerance, but neither he nor any of his colleagues seriously believe in the return of some 200,000-plus people expelled since the beginning of the occupation. Nor do they believe the occupation itself must cease – quite to the contrary, they want the NATO troops to stay and guarantee the "stability" of their power.

Non-Albanian refugees are completely irrelevant to judging Kosovo's standards of "democracy." All the media and humanitarian attention they have not received over the past three years certainly seems to support such thinking. And naturally, Serbs live in ghettos for their own protection. Just consider what happens to Albanians whom their compatriots find less than loyal to The Cause. Accused of "collaborating" with the Serbs, an entire Albanian family was brutally murdered in Glogovac last June. This week, eight Albanians were arrested by the UN occupation authorities, and charged with the murder. Among them are three members of the UN-funded "Kosovo Protection Corps," a paramilitary racket for the retired KLA.

None of this should detract from Mr. Rexhepi's desire to see Kosovo as an independent Albanian state, on account of its democracy and civilization.

Dreams of Bosnia

There is, of course, a piece of the Balkans that has been under Imperial dominion the longest – and it shows. Bosnia has lapsed into a world where the concepts that seem utterly insane are regarded as progress.

Thus there are only a few voices of indignation when Viceroy Ashdown announces that he could run Bosnia much better if it weren't for those pesky Bosnians. Nor does it seem strange when the reporter for Empire's paper of record doesn't seem to have anything better to do than wax cliché about Radovan  Karadzic, the man the Empire loves to hate, but just can't get its hands on. In addition to at least ten phrases worn out by constant abuse over the past decade, the New York Times report from Eastern Bosnia contains such gems as this:

"Despite being paid compensation for having the locks blown off their doors, they loathe the NATO-led Stabilization Force, viewing it as yet another occupying power."

Well, of course anyone in their right mind should just gush with love for people who occupy their country, blow their doors open in the wee hours of the morning and ransack their quiet, peaceful village. They did get paid, after all…

On the other hand, Empire's seasoned reporters are completely baffled when facing reality. Only Agence France-Presse reported on Monday's arrest of a man who just happened to carry a high-power sniper rifle on a visit to a city the SFOR commander was visiting at the same time. The SFOR commander happens to be an American, Gen. John Sylvester. The man who sported the sniper rifle happens to be a Bosnian Muslim with alleged organized crime and even terrorist connections. Of course, any notion that the arrested gunman might have planned to shoot Gen. Sylvester, and any speculation that the assassination would have then been blamed on those evil Bosnian Serbs who just hate SFOR for its peacekeeping goodness, will be dismissed as purely ridiculous. This is Bosnia. Logic need not apply.

Law and Lunacy

The New York Times reporter with a fondness for clichés might be somewhat excused since he did not do it first, or alone. A colleague of his used every cliché in the bag when she commented on the anniversary of Slobodan Milosevic's arrival to the Hague Inquisition's dungeons. Then again, the Inquisition is a paragon of Empire's efforts in the Balkans, and a place where logic – or law – mean even less than in Bosnia, or Kosovo.

It is thus possible for the Inquisitors to appear reasonable when they trim their list of accusations against Milosevic from 66 to some unspecified, smaller number. However, as Richard Holbrooke reminded everyone so kindly a few weeks back, it takes only one to imprison Milosevic for life. Being reasonable, then, is not an explanation, and neither is a desire to stick to what can be proven, as their mouthpiece suggested. If the Inquisitors tossed out everything they couldn't prove, there'd be nothing left of the indictment. More likely, they are focusing on charges for which manufacturing "eyewitness evidence" will be least difficult.

Then again, given the quality of their witnesses, that might not help either. Recently they all seem to be people with vested interest in seeing Milosevic hang, from NATO's high-ranking generals to European diplomats who were heavily involved with the Kosovo crisis. Openly justifying the NATO attack and blaming it exclusively on Milosevic, they also "think," "feel" and are "left with impressions" that the former Yugoslav president was guilty as sin. Aren't witnesses required to know anything any more?

The most ludicrous recent development at the Inquisition, however, has nothing to do with the Milosevic trial. In an effort to defend Croatian General Ante Gotovina, charged with command responsibility for killing 150 Serbs during Croatia's 1995 blitz, a Croatian lobbying group has proposed charging former President Clinton as well. Since the US helped Croatia plan and execute the operation, they reason, if there were any crimes its commander-in-chief must be held responsible. The irony here is manifold. Far more than 150 Serbs were killed in "Operation Storm," which was also a violation of the 1991 interim peace agreement and an invasion of UN-protected territories (which strangely no one has ever protested, least of all the UN). Besides, the Croatian World Congress didn't really mean to imply Clinton was guilty of war crimes. What they were really trying to do is exculpate Gotovina by putting him under the umbrella of Imperial immunity. If he was serving America, how could he possibly be a criminal?

Mendicants' Ball

Given all this, fiction writers ought to be rightly worried. Their ability to make up plausible plots in this or some other world is routinely surpassed by the paid peddlers of reality.

Neither western nor local journalists have acquitted themselves well in the Balkans crisis. After all, that's where "advocacy journalism" came into its own, with the remarkable "discovery" of genocides and mass rapes that never let the utter lack of evidence get in the way of a good story. If it bled, it led the evening news – so what if the blood belonged to someone else? These are the very people who heard a phrase "ethnic cleansing" (first used by a Kosovo Albanian communist official in 1987) describe an expulsion of Serbs from western Croatia, then claimed the phrase and the "criminal plan" behind it were invented by Serbs.

These are also the people who line up to testify at the Hague Inquisition's trials, knowing that "helping convict war criminals" looks great on a resume. Except, of course, when they refuse. Problems crop up when the ungrateful, presumptuous Inquisition just insists they speak their bit. Cue self-righteous indignation and injured whining of poor, misunderstood reporters who have helped and praised the "court" so much, and this is how they are repaid?

All of a sudden, people who still glorify the Inquisition for its pursuit of "justice" are protesting its methods, which in this case aren't even especially extra-judicial – not compared to the treatment of the accused, at least. It's the principle of the thing, they claim: journalists should be above the law. Hard to believe, isn't it, that the words "ICTY" and "principle" can be used in the same sentence by self-respecting individuals who claim special status as the conscience of humanity.

But remember: this is the Balkans, where everything is possible and fact is much stranger than fiction.

Text-only printable version of this article

Nebojsa Malic left his home in Bosnia after the Dayton Accords and currently resides in the United States. During the Bosnian War he had exposure to diplomatic and media affairs in Sarajevo, and contributed to the Independent. As a historian who specializes in international relations and the Balkans, Malic has written numerous essays on the Kosovo War, Bosnia and Serbian politics, many of which have been published by the Serbian Unity Congress. His exclusive column for Antiwar.com appears every Thursday.


Archived Columns

Pulp Reality

Bosnia As Chump Change

On St. Vitus Day

Balkans Leaders Chose Servitude

Balkans and the Big Picture

The Long Shadow of Kosovo

Charlatans In Charge

Empire in the Balkans: Hypocrisy Rampant

Images Worth A Thousand Lies

Lessons of Forgotten Wars

The Balkans: Democracy Triumphant

Shadows of the Past

All the Wrong Lessons

Bosnia Revisited

Once Upon A Country

A Superbly Organized Crime

Bitter Balkans Ironies

Of Hubris, Heretics, and Hermits

Masters of Mendacity

The Trial

Exercises In Wishful Thinking

Ten Years in the Twilight Zone

Wastelands of Imperial Reality

Off to a Bad Start

Operation Enduring Stupidity

Balkans Christmas – All Year 'Round

A Trojan Horse in Belgrade

Where the Shadows Lie

Republic Day

Surrender in Kosovo

A False Choice for Kosovo

Death by Protectorate

Perverted Justice

The Meanings of Madness

Arrogance of Power

Reflections on Revolution

War Without End

Battle in the Balkans

Intersections of Fate

Macedonia's Tragedy Masquerading as Farce

A Day to Remember

The Serbian Standoff

Macedonia's Futile Surrender

Murdering Macedonia

Rambouillet Repeated?

Empire's Willing Servants

Kostunica's Choice

Betrayal in Belgrade

The Empire Shows Its Hand

The Return of Kings

Meditations On The Edge Of The Abyss


Terms of Betrayal

Presevo – A False Victory

The Balkans: Land of Delusions

Enemies at the Gates

ICG's Blueprint for Destruction

Kosovo: Between Death and Taxes

Madness in the Mountains: Montenegro's Looming Secession

A House Divided


Empire at the Gates

Macedonian Maelstrom

Pax Americana

The Fourth Balkan War

Mayhem in Macedonia

Surreal Realm

Santayana's Curse

The Croatian Conundrum

March of the Black Eagle

Showdown in Belgrade

Out of the Shadows

With a Grain of Salt

Crusade's End

The Worst of Times

Moments of Transition

Déja Vu

The Crucible

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