05 Feb 18 Comment

January is the Longest Month

Happy February to all!

Milos Ciric BIRN Belgrade
Serbian leader Aleksandar Vucic laying a wreath at the scene of Oliver Ivanovic's murder. Photo: BETA

The longest, and by some sources, the most depressing month is behind us. What we await now is the shortest month in the year – which will bring to the fore the hard truths about our unhealthy spending habits, the weight we gained in the holiday season and the unpleasant truth that, despite New Year’s best wishes, based on events in January, the Western Balkans isn’t heading into a happy new year.

Because of all the accumulated recent bad news, we will most likely want to “give up” following the daily news for the time being, not to mention recalling what happened only few weeks earlier in our ever-troubled part of the world.

In Serbia, the second half of January, the so-called “Serbian (Orthodox) New Year” started with a funeral (I suspect this is not a good sign) when the slain Kosovo Serb leader Oliver Ivanovic was buried in Belgrade with full honors.

He was killed by still unidentified person(s), while Serbia’s political, social and other actors fell into what can only be called a state of mass hysteria, supported by the media.

We heard everything all over again. Words, expressions and headlines in newspapers like – “Bloody Shqiptars”, “Serbia’s revenge for Kosovo is past overdue”; “Serbia should militarily intervene and take back Kosovo”; “So-called Kosovo Government blocking investigation”; “Murderer Thaçi”; “Mass killer Haradinaj”; “Filthy Albanians”; “Unfair international community is again against Serbia”; “Serbia attacked again by everyone” – flooded the media in the days before Ivanovic’s statesman-like funeral in Belgrade, organized by the family but with the support of President Aleksandar Vucic’s government along with his own personal contribution.

The night before the funeral, Serbia’s “progressive” opposition leaders gathered with assorted convicted criminals.

Among them was Radomir Pocuca, a former journalist and familiar TV face, who was convicted of illegally fighting in Ukraine, but acquitted of assaulting activists from the NGO Women in Black. Pocuca also previously worked for the Ministry of Interior as a spokesperson of the anti-terrorist unit.

The vigil for “Oliver”, which is how suddenly everybody started calling Ivanovic, wanting to emphasize their false closeness to him, gathered on the night of January 17 in Belgrade.

In attendance were many leaders of right-wing parties and extremist organizations, football fans, and ordinary citizens.

They were joined by Dragan Sutanovac, president of the opposition Democratic Party; former Prime Minister Zoran Zivkovic, the president of Nova Stranka; the former mayor of Belgrade and former president of the Democratic Party, Dragan Djilas, who is currently the leader of a still unidentified political party/movement; Sasa Jankovic, former Ombudsman and ex-sweetheart of so-called Serbian progressives; Vuk Jeremic, former Foreign Minister and failed candidate for the presidency of UN’s General Assembly and, even more humiliatingly – failed competitor for the presidency of Serbia (he was badly defeated by a spoof candidate, Beli Preletacevic); and many others.

They all came to pay respects to Ivanovic in front of the St Sava church in Belgrade, one of the country’s most symbolic sites for displaying national unity. These opposition figures proved once again that they simply aren’t up to the hard tasks that politics in moments like these create, showing nothing but their disrespect for the victim by promoting themselves, all of a sudden, as “Oliver’s” friends and comrades.

This is nothing new in Serbian political and social life based on lies and deceptions; remember when Prime Minster Zoran Djindjic was killed? Ever since that assassination, all of Djindjic’s political foes who for years before the assassination had spread toxic lies about him, which contributed to the atmosphere in which it was only expected that he would eventually get a bullet – all of the sudden became his best friends.

Meanwhile the crucial facts revolving around his assassination were never fully revealed. Yes, the murderers were convicted, but the instigators of Djindjic’s murder were never held accountable, despite the solitary attempts of Djindjic’s sister’s and mother’s lawyer, the late Srdja Popovic, who filed several lawsuits, trying in vain to uncover “the political background” to Djindjic’s assassination.

Something similar happened, and will probably happen, in the case of Ivanovic. Both in Kosovo and Serbia, many voices have been heard making pathetic statements about their “friendship with Oliver”, or using other similar phrases.

Facts, however, tell a very different story – not just that Ivanovic didn’t have many friends during his life, at least not in the last 10 to 15 years, but also that many of his bereaved “friends” who are today in power and opposition in Serbia actively worked to discredit him politically and personally. And by doing so, they worsened the unbearable conditions of his life and the life of his family that became marked by frequent, straightforward threats and attacks, including firebombing his car.

Ironically, most of these people are Kosovo Serbs and well-known thugs with whom Ivanovic was a close collaborator once upon a time during the 1990s and in the early 2000s, but who became threatened by Ivanovic’s new status, which he gained during – ironically – Djindjic’s term.

In those days, Ivanovic, once “a bridge watcher” and prominent Kosovo Serb who wasn’t shy of supporting hate speech or acts of violence, became “a moderate Kosovo Serb leader, fighting for peace and dialogue.”

It is unclear, though, compared to whom Ivanovic was “a moderate.” After all, he was charged with war crimes, although the guilty verdict was overturned and the trial went back to the beginning.

However, in Serbia’s twisted culture, it is a custom that “only the best things should be said of the dead.” So, whoever dared (and that’s an insignificant number of people in Serbian public life) to say something about Ivanovic’s “unpleasant” past, which dates much further back than the previous couple of years, was dismissed and viciously attacked by his “true supporters.”

All of this resembles the death of another “respected Serbian public figure”, Aleksandar Tijanic,a  former close confidant of Slobodan Milosevic and his wife, a right-wing bully and media mogul, an extreme nationalist and one of Djindjic’s most vicious enemies, who, after he died, practically became a saint.

After the vigil “for Oliver”, an event the Serbian opposition called “We’re the majority”, his funeral went terribly wrong.

Instead of paying due respect to the stricken family, Prime Minister Ana Brnabic showed a lack of self-control and basic human dignity by falling on Ivanovic’s open grave in tears.

Brnabic’s unbearably embarrassing act was of course recorded on camera and was promptly broadcast in all the media. The Prime Minister’s cringe-worthy behavior showed the miserable state Serbian society finds itself in, and sent a political message as well – that Serbia’s current leadership is unstable and unfit to lead the country. Putting aside how and why the Prime Minister – who entered our political life only recently – felt so personally about Ivanovic’s death, she wasn’t a private person at the funeral. She was the highest representative of the government and by extension of all the citizens of Serbia, which she personified in a truly undignified way.

Kosovo Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj. Photo: Kosovo PM's office

At the same time, in Kosovo, parliament held a moment of silence in the aftermath of the Ivanovic’s death, while Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj’s Government vowed to “work closely with Serbian authorities on promptly resolving the Ivanovic murder.”

The results of that “work” are still negligible: nobody has been charged, and, as the days go by, the case gets colder and colder. This is not to say that the killer(s) won’t get caught eventually, or that “the investigation will show” what Western Balkan investigations historically always “showed” – at best – blurred facts that surrounded every single political murder that happened in our region since the 19th century.

In Serbia, President Vucic also used Ivanovic’s murder to emphasize how undaunted he was, and visited Kosovo days after Ivanovic’s funeral. Nebojsa Stefanovic, Vice-President of Vucic’s party and Minister of Interior, gave a predictably pathetic speech with his voice breaking when he described how “we [Vucic’s close collaborators] tried everything to prevent him from going to Kosovo since the situation is potentially life-threatening to him” but adding that “Vucic was unswerving and that nobody could change his mind.”

Vucic’s visit to Kosovo was of course presented in the media as proof of his boundless courage.

As if he isn’t the most powerful man in the country, holding in his hand the whole apparatus of power, including its public and secret security agencies, the military, and police forces.

As if he wasn’t the same Vucic whose frequent hateful tantrums against minorities in the past, especially against Kosovo Albanians, weren’t fueling the Serbian agents of terror who committed countless crimes in Kosovo, and are still perpetrating the acts of crimes and violence, but whose vicious deeds are now restricted mostly to the members of their own people, since they are contained in the criminal quasi-state invented and nurtured by Serbia that we call Northern Kosovo.

All of this, naturally, couldn’t be discussed in Serbian public, which again showed just how immature it still is in moments of political turbulence.

Meanwhile, Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic paid an official visit to Bosnia and Herzegovina. During her meetings with Bosnia’s leadership, she gave typical contradictory statements on “the status of Croats in Bosnia and Herzegovina”, commenting on the discussions prompted by the newly proposed election laws. “Croatia is not interfering in internal affairs of Bosnia”, she insisted, but at the same time: “Croatia will protect the rights of Croats and fight for them.”

Wrapping a seemingly conciliatory message into an implicit threat is a common use of language by Croatian and Serbian leaders when it comes to Bosnia and its leadership, especially the Bosniaks, ever since Serbia commissioned aggression on Bosnia, and when Croatia tried to take advantage of the situation during the wars in 1990s, all in “legitimate efforts to protect Bosnian Croats’ rights.”

Usually, however, that language is a prelude to violating Bosniaks’ rights who already paid the worst price imaginable during the wars of the 1990s, caught between the two fires – Serbia and Croatia.

What actually went on during her three-day visit to Bosnia is that Grabar-Kitarovic added to the increasing pressure on Bosnian politicians to include Croatia-imposed suggestions in a new election law which would please the (still) far-right Croatian Democratic Union, HDZ, founded by Franjo Tudjman, whose current chairman is Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic.

Despite the past verdicts of the European Court of Human Rights, which condemned the discriminatory attitudes of the Bosnian legal system towards minorities, a deal is now being brokered that would further prevent ethnic minorities from being elected in “Croat” parts of Bosnia.”

The proposition pushed by Croatia with regard to a discriminatory election law aims at another blockage of Bosnian political life, reminiscent of the one that the HDZ undertook in 2011, when they obstructed the already fragile functioning of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

What is surprising today is not that the nationalists from the HDZ or Grabar-Kitarovic herself are lobbying for this discriminatory solution but that these kinds of ethnically based voting “rights” are now supported by the EU and Donald Trump’s administration.

Kolinda Grabar Kitarovic. Photo: Anadolu Agency/Stipe Majic.

The current “solution” being pushed down Bosnia’s minorities’ throats would, among other things, prevent members of minority communities, such as Muslims, Roma, Jews, and others from running for office in areas where they don’t constitute a majority.

Croatia is determined to finish the job started in 2011, but now with much larger pool of support, at the costs of the Bosniaks and the rights of other minorities.

These attempts are for now being supported the most by Austria’s far-right, pro-Russian, Freedom Party, that is now in charge of Austria’s Foreign and Interior Ministries and army.

Freedom Party leader Heinz-Christian Strache is known for his connections with Vladimir Putin (he was supported by Putin’s United Russia when he ran for the Austrian presidency, and almost won), and right-wing extremists all over the world, including Milorad Dodik, president of Republika Srpska.

Both men are great admirers of the Russian President and are fierce supporters of various extremists’ groups. It is also worth mentioning that Dodik awarded Strache with a medal at the same time as his guests in Banja Luka were Putin’s 'Night Wolves' bikers, who were also honored with Republika Srpska’s highest accolades.

Not surprisingly, right-wing leaders from both the Serbian and Croatian 'sides' in Bosnia are nurturing friendships with like-minded groups and politicians whose extremism is only getting more and more support.

Another event caused turbulence during Grabar-Kitarovic’s three-day visit to Bosnia.

She surprised everyone by pulling off a Vucic-like PR stunt. According to the media, the president “decided on her own volition to break protocol and the predetermined schedule” when she went to see a memorial and pay respects to the Bosniak victims of a massacre commissioned by Croats in 1993 in the village of Ahmici.

Similarly to Serbian leaders who, when they (if ever) visit sites of mass crimes in Bosnia that Serbs perpetrated against Bosniaks, they immediately afterwards run to pay respect to Serbian victims as well, equalizing the two in an effort to nurture the narrative that “all sides are to blame for the atrocities of the 1990s”, Grabar-Kitarovic headed to Krizancevo Selo, where Croat soldiers were killed by the Bosnian army in late 1993.

After she visited both sites, Grabar-Kitarovic posted a photo on Instagram with a caption: “In Ahmici and Krizancevo Selo I showed reverence to the victims of the war in Bosnia. We must do everything in our power so no mother ever again cries over the death of a child or a wife over the loss of a husband like during the wars in our region. This is an incessant task for us and the future generations.”

She mostly received praise for this message “of peace and reconciliation” in the Croatian and regional media, but nobody was there to ask the President if her message did not contradict most of her other acts as President and the very core of her nationalistic political agenda.

The most recent example that an imaginary interlocutor could use to discuss this with Grabar-Kitarovic could have been her support for the convicted war criminal and a psychopath Slobodan Praljak who only a few months ago killed himself in the Hague tribunal courtroom while hearing his verdict for crimes against Bosniaks confirmed.

Grabar-Kitarovic, along with the Prime Minister Plenkovic and scores of Croatian politicians and public figures, described this cowardly act as “heroic” and praised Praljak as a national hero.

Praljak is only the most recent example of glorification of war criminals by the Croatian political leadership, so it is unclear how this fits into Grabar-Kitarovic’s vision of being on “an incessant task so no mother in the region would lose her child” – killed by people like those she publicly admires and celebrates.

While we’re with examples of Vucic-style PR stunts, the most recent one is the trilateral meeting between him, Bakir Izetbegovic of Bosnia and Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara.

Wanting to show that he is, of all people, one of the last supporters of Bosniaks in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Vucic dealt a blow to the Croatian President’s bilateral meeting with Erdogan that took place earlier in January. Grabar-Kitarovic’s meeting with Eerdogam during which she lobbied for Turkey to support Bosnian Croats’ “rights” in Bosnia and Herzegovina, caused unrest among Bosnia’s political elite, who were left wondering who is left on their side. It turns out that (only seemingly) Vucic has their back, while Izetbegovic took whatever chance he had left, and after being humiliated in Belgrade recently, went with Vucic to Ankara.

When they returned home, Vucic again played them all, by reluctantly accepting Grabar-Kitarovic’s invitation to pay an official visit to Zagreb, all in his “efforts to preserve good neighboring relations.”

This, of course, happened only after they fought hard in the media about Serbia’s exhibition in the UN about atrocities of Jasenovac, which according to Croatia was a “manipulation” and “a falsification of historical facts.”

On the same day of her visit to Ahmici and Krizancevo, Serbia’s Vucic held another meeting with Republika Srpska’s separatist leader, Milorad Dodik, in Belgrade.

It is a mystery why these two men visit each other so frequently, especially since, after every meeting, the public statements by both men are suspiciously similar in content. It is always about “improving the Serbs’ position in Bosnia and Herzegovina” or “working on improving the special relations between Srpska and Serbia.” What kind of special relations are we actually talking about here?

In parallel, something uncanny and reminiscent of 1990s is happening in Republika Srpska.

The local media there reported on “Paramilitary units being formed by Serbs with the support of the Russians in Republika Srpska.” Dodik spent some time in the company of members of a neo-Nazi organization, 'Serbian Honour', who are considered Dodik’s 'wild card' for potentially creating chaos in Bosnia if the results of the upcoming elections don’t go his way.

Serbian Honour calls itself  “a humanitarian organization” but it actually consists of convicted criminals and thugs known for their violence directed against “the enemies of Serbian people and Serbia’s interest.”

Dodik paraded with members of this organization at the beginning of the month and posed for a photograph with the organization’s most prominent members.

At the same time, reports emerged that numerous Republika Srpska war veterans are sending their children to military camps in Russia for training in combat.

Troubling videos have emerged on social media showing Srpska’s and Serbia’s young men, from 14 to 18 years old, in uniform during training at one of Russia’s “patriotic camps.” The video shows them being instructed how to kill “the enemy” using various weapons, including their bare hands. The language of this horrific “seminar” is Russian, but there was a Serbian translator translating commands from Russian.

The news caused unrest among politicians and the public in Federation entity of Bosnia and Herzegovina, with Minister of Interior Dragan Mektic saying that “he has proof that several hundred uniforms are paid for by tax payers’ money” for creating new paramilitary groups in Republika Srpska.

On the other hand, it’s no secret that Croatia is heavily arming its military for several years now, with most recent purchase of a big chunk of brand new armaments.

Am I paranoid, or does all of this remind us of the prelude to the wars of the 1990s: Bosniak rights are being actively threatened while minorities in Bosnia are being pressed to the wall; Serbs are again training their youth and creating paramilitary, voluntary units (anybody remembers Arkan and Seselj and their soldiers?); the Croats are heavily arming and pushing the right-wing agenda; Russia and Serbia are actively supporting these trends; the nationalistic rhetoric on all sides is stronger than ever; and sadly, there are indications that the EU and the US are again turning a blind eye to these deadly trends, in some cases even showing support.

What the future will bring to the Western Balkans if these tendencies are not stopped in their tracks is as uncertain as ever. Or maybe it isn’t, because we’ve seen this movie already in the 1990s, and it didn’t end well.

Maybe January is indeed the most depressing month.

Milos Ciric is a Serbian politologist, educator, writer, and human rights activist. He holds MA in Cultural policy from the University of Arts, Belgrade, and MA in Media Studies from The New School University, New York.

The opinions expressed in the comment section are those of the authors only and do not necessarily reflect the views of BIRN.

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