Friday, June 10, 2011

A Lesson in Democracy, from Serbia

They finally got Ratko Mladic. He is in The Hague now, awaiting his trial and the rest of his days. When Africans and Serbs do bad things, they go to “The Hague”. Arabs go to “Guantanamo”. People like Bush and Blair write books – their memoirs as they recall them – and go on a book selling tour.

Mladic was a war criminal, no doubt about that. He had 8000 Bosnian men and youth killed in Srebrenica, in 1995, even frightening the Dutch commander of the UN contingent present in Srebrenica into non-action. “Allah cannot help you, only Mladic”, the general used to say, haunting and taunting his victims until their final destination on earth in the mass graves of Bosnia.

Richard Holbrooke, the late US and UN envoy, was impressed by Mladic the man, the charismatic murderer. Hollywood could not find a better actor to play the bad guy, said Holbrooke. Only this was not a blockbuster produced by Michael Bay but a true Armageddon with real blood.

With Ratko Mladic the bad man, the Serbs became the bad guys of Europe. Everybody hated them back in the 1990s. Was Serbia Europe at all, were these barbaric Serbs worthy of calling themselves Europeans? It was politically incorrect to say something good about Serbia and the Serbs, and when Peter Handke, the German author dared to do it, he was killed by the media and stripped of his well established glory.

In 2005 I attended a course in international affairs and there were Serbian participants, two from Serbia and one from Bosnia-Herzegovina. Ooops, Serbs, was my first thought, the strange, blood thirsty fellows from the Balkans. As it turned out, they were among the best people to be with during the course. They were well educated, knew how to craft their arguments and they certainly shared a good laugh. Later in the course the entire class visited Belgrade, the Serbian capital, for three days. It was then that I realized that Serbia was not in outer space but in Europe. The history of the Balkans is the history of Europe! I spent three of seminars, of shopping and of entertainment in Belgrade. There was nothing better than starting a Saturday evening with listening and dancing to Gypsy music from the Balkans and then continue the night in a disco Balkan style: with sharply dressed women and ear rattling techno music. People are multi-dimensional. Nobody is only good, nobody is only bad. A day time killer can be a night time lover.

Failures in Democracy: Mladic, Milosevic

I went back to the same institute at the end of May of this year. While 15 years ago everybody was probably talking “Serbia”, I was quite shocked to learn that “terrorism” still had not lost its appeal to academic circles around the world, ten years after 911 and one month after Osama bin Laden had been killed in Pakistan. Terrorism was the word, from early in the morning until late in the afternoon. Don’t we have any other challenge? The nuclear catastrophe in Japan for instance; the fight of the Arab people for justice and freedom; or the future dependency of Europe on Russian energy, just to name a few? Free your mind, academics, stop your obsession with terrorism, please! Terrorism is bad, terrorism can kill you – but so does driving a car or smoking cigarettes – but it can never change the world set by politicians and by armies. If it does, if it actually manages a turn around, it is probably not terrorism but rather a liberation movement resorting to violent actions to advance their cause.

After I was done with the institute, I continued my journey to Paris France to attend two days of French Open tennis at Roland Garros. I was watching the game between the world number one, Rafael Nadal, and the worlds’ number 227, Antonio Veic, still having terrorism on my mind. In security policy terms this was the United States playing Al Qaeda. Veic celebrated every little point against Nadal like a big victory, as terrorists do when they successfully pull off an attack. But as for Nadal as for the USA: the points Veic made were just a tactical nuisance, not a strategic threat. Nadal was never in danger of losing the game and it therefore ended with a very loopsided 6:1 6:3 6:0.

Veic is a player from Croatia, a country that fought Serbia during the Balkan wars of the 1990s. Now both countries want to join Europe – a Europe where they already belong to – and want to become members of the European Union. Croatia is already quite far in its accession process, and Serbia has just made the first down payment by handing Mladic over to posteriority. It is interesting to see how these countries still believe in the institution of a centralized, bureaucratic Europe, expecting prosperity, a stable system of laws and an end of corruption from it. It reminds me of people soon to be married, still believing in the holy institution of the marriage despite a 50% divorce rate.

Meanwhile Mladic sits in his prison cell, thinking about his line of defense. “Why do you blame me?” he asked in his first interrogation session in Belgrade. “It was you who elected Milosevic president of Serbia.” It was the Serbs who elected him, very well knowing what he was standing for: a Greater Serbia, a nationalistic policy and a distaste for everything not Serbian.

Mladic has a point here. Clausewitz wrote that war is the continuation of politics with other means. So Mladic, the general with the gun, was the continuation of Milosevic, the politician with the pen. Democracy has failed in Serbia. It sanctioned policies of destruction, of crimes and discrimination, of “Blut und Boden”. The masses are not always right. Mladic sits in his cell in the Netherlands, but it is the Serbian people who should be brooding, about what they had done and what had let them to do it. Instead they are about to join the biggest non-functional democracy there is. Maybe it will help them to forget but maybe it should not. It is from failures that we learn the most, not from successes. Maybe Serbia can teach us a lesson or two about democracy.