November 27, 2003

Nebojsa's column will return next week.

Return to the Right?
A Balkans Trend That Isn't
by Nebojsa Malic

Furor over the strong showing of the Radicals in Serbia's failed presidential election has just subsided in the West, when news came of Croatia's electoral results. Three years after imploding upon the death of its leader, the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) regained power with a slim but respectable parliamentary majority. Reports from Croatia, while nowhere near as impassionate as those from Serbia, nonetheless sounded a note of alarm that the center-left government has been replaced by nationalists. HDZ's victory was even described as the "latest sign of a broad shift to the right in the war-torn Balkans" (AFP).


Croatians are indeed trying a government with a different flavor, but today's HDZ is hardly the fearsome, chauvinist, Holocaust-denying movement of yesteryear. Its new leader, Ivo Sanader, even pledged to respect Serb property rights, in a bid to appear tolerant and acceptable to the European thought police.

And while HDZ and many other ascendant parties in the region can be described as "socially conservative" bordering on outright repression, the real conservatism in terms of championing a limited, rational government is virtually nonexistent in the Balkans.

Phony Concerns

Even while anticipating its success in the Sunday vote, Imperial heralds raised questions about HDZ's alleged break with demons of its past. With the outgoing regime resisting demands to arrest and extradite to the Hague Inquisition one of its generals accused of war crimes, it is thought the HDZ would abjectly refuse to do so. Putting Ante Gotovina on trial has been a key part of the Inquisition's strategy to appear impartial, while also giving leverage to Europe and the Empire to pressure Croatia into doing their bidding.

While it remains to be seen what the new government does about Gotovina, there isn't much likelihood of repeating history, and for three good reasons. One, Franjo Tudjman is dead; love him or hate him, it's hard to deny he was a strong influence on modern Croatia. Two, the Serbs are gone; from almost 600,000 before the war (13%), only some 200,000 (4.5%) remain. Three, the war is over; while fighting raged in Bosnia, Zagreb enjoyed US support (e.g. Robert Frasure's "junkyard dogs" comment). Once it ended, and Croatia served its purpose, the Empire has been aloof at best.

Perhaps the best indicator of how the times have changed is Tuesday's endorsement of the HDZ by the leading ethnic Serb party in Croatia. It really does appear that the Party of Tudjman has become practically neutered (Transitions Online), pretending to decency and respectability while lining up for its turn at the public trough.

The Poisoned Chalice

After three years of safely sniping at the government, the HDZ has now regained the poisoned chalice of power. It faces the same problem now as any other government in the Balkans: having enormous power over all aspects of life, it is expected to have the corresponding responsibility for them. But while a government can take away life and property, it cannot create any; while it can throttle the economy with taxes and regulations, it cannot boost it without their abolition and that is very unlikely. Taxation in the Balkans seems to be governed by the Ferengi Rules of Acquisition: Once they have your money, they never give it back.

A big challenge for HDZ, and Croatia's specific problem, is dealing with the so-called Homeland War. Often mistakenly described as a war for independence from Yugoslavia, it was in fact a conflict over Serb-inhabited areas that tried to secede upon Croatia's declaration of independence. The attempt failed, and the Serb population was largely driven out. Tudjman and HDZ succeeded where even Ante Pavelic's Ustashe could not. So why are Croatians acting as if they had lost? Every border dispute and every accusation of war crimes are met with outbursts of mass hysteria.

Fact is, Croatia is independent for the first time since the XI century; it is bigger than it ever was, except as a Nazi ally during World War Two; and the Serbs are gone for good except to reclaim their property and sell it off to start anew somewhere else (though Zagreb does its best to thwart even that). The war is over. Now comes the hard part: lives and property need to be protected, roads built, people allowed to work and keep what they've earned. That's what a government is supposed to do. All that matters is whether HDZ can do it, or if it will choose to live in its glorious past instead. Even the laurels of victory eventually wither and rot.

No Real Right

Another issue altogether is that commonly used political labels have become devoid of meaning. Few can say what it means to be "left", "right", or even "center" and in relation to what specifically. Socialists call themselves the Left and consider it to mean being "progressive," humane, positive and caring yet their philosophy of property and individual liberty ensures it won't be. Ideologies involving racist, xenophobic or chauvinist views are somehow seen as Right, even though by their economic views they properly belong among the socialists. Nationalism in the Balkans has an especially bad rep entirely deservingly but in the US it is falsely branded "patriotism" and celebrated as such.

In most cases, the distinctions are meaningless. Everyone believes in "democracy" now. Both the "left" and the "right" seek to attain the power of government and use it indiscriminately to achieve their social and cultural goals. It is in those that they differ to some extent, as some ape Western "values" of multi-cultist moral relativism of mandatory "tolerance" and coercive "diversity," while others impose by force their religious or ideological morality. But they both seek to impose their beliefs on the rest through government force, a violation that surely cancels out whatever nobility those beliefs may hold. Balkans political morality is a twist on utilitarianism: greatest good for the greatest power, and the extreme case of "What's in it for me?"

Underneath it all is the misguided conviction that government can and should find solutions to everyday problems. It cannot, and therefore should not even try. Yet few share this perspective, and even fewer dare utter it in public.

It eventually comes down to the issue of obedience to the Empire. Whoever is compliant with orders from Washington, Brussels and The Hague is deemed a "moderate" or a "reformer," worthy of support and praise (at least while they continue to obey). Anyone who dares voice opposition is smeared as a "hard-line ultra-nationalist," whatever that means.

Eyes on Europe

A real "conservative" party would champion national sovereignty, not fealty to a super-government. Yet almost all current and aspiring Balkans leaders eagerly promise their people the glorious day of joining the European Union. While the Hague Inquisition hangs over people's heads like the proverbial sword, joining the EU is the sweet Siren song, promising economic and social bliss at the expense of liberty, property and tradition.

Such a price is too high to be paid voluntarily, but it seems easy to relinquish something one's never had. Of course, the real problem is that without liberty and property there can be no economic prosperity (Communism has demonstrated this most graphically), while there can be no social bliss without society, without tradition. Much like the Empire, Europe promises things it seeks to destroy, willingly or not.

True Portents

What do the victories of the HDZ, the Serbian Radicals, or the nationalists in Bosnia really portend? Not much, in all honesty, beyond the continued belief of voters in the power and ability of government to help them climb out of the deepening abyss. Governments' continual failure to do so is reflected in the constant shift in voter allegiance, to the point where re-election is an exception rather than a rule. It is painfully obvious that the status quo isn't working for most people. Things need to get better, and soon. Now is as good a time as ever for new ideas and fresh perspectives.

Maybe the Balkans really should "return" to the Right, and try limited government, rule of law, liberty and property for a change. There's hardly anywhere to go but up.

– Nebojsa Malic

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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. His exclusive column for appears every Thursday.


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