michael.benson on Tue, 6 Apr 1999 11:47:11 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> The 'loathsome couple'

     [orig not to nettime.]

The infuriating thing about the double-bind situation in which 
the Serbs find themselves -- infuriating no doubt also to 
more than a few Serbs -- is that once again Slobodan Milosevic 
wins, even as the Yugoslavia which he's leading to ever greater ruin
loses. We have seen this before, with the eviction of the Croatian 
Serbs, the eventual settlement in Bosnia, and the return of hard-won, 
ruined Vukovar to the Croats. Each of these losses sent a new 
wave of refugees rolling towards Belgrade. And each of them, 
paradoxically, strengthened Milosevic -- in the short term, anyway. 
Now, with the stakes higher than ever before, and with the full 
weight of the most powerful military in the world arrayed "against" 
Milosevic (but actually, in critical ways, unwittingly *for* him -- 
as we'll see), and with the medieval heartlands of the Serbian nation 
in question, the magnitude of his victory in Serbia's defeat could be 
-- may very well be -- that much greater. It appears virtually 
impossible to oppose Milosevic in Serbia today. It appears that the 
army is once again under his undisputed control -- something which 
was not a given as recently as three years ago. Montenegro may now 
suffer a military take-over, returning it to the unambiguous control 
of Belgrade; and alternative media figures and dissident professors 
and intellectuals are evidently on the run, sometimes trying to 
avoid being forced into uniforms as cannon fodder. More than that, 
there is the inevitable unity resulting from the appearance of an 
actual -- not just a perceived -- external adversary. Obviously this 
card is the same one Milosevic has played many a time before, but 
never with as much success as now, since before this the conjured-up 
adversary was usually much weaker than Serbia. Or at least initially 
so, as with Croatia in the early 90's.

Frequently blind, for whatever reasons, to the nature and true extent 
of the crimes committed under the direction of Belgrade, both for the 
last decade and now in Kosovo; or if not blind, then ready 
to come up with *more* extreme ones allegedly committed by their 
adversaries; understandably angry at the fears and discomforts of 
spending nights in bomb shelters (sensations familiar to an entire 
generation of Croats and Bosniaks -- those lucky enough to still be 
alive I mean), the Serbian people are exactly on-track. By this I 
mean they're experiencing *exactly* the radical sense of 
victimization that Milosevic and his closest collaborator and 
strategist, Mirjana Markovic -- and their ubiquitous mass-media 
machinery -- have been implanting and reinforcing during the last 
decade. In other words, they are locked firmly within the 
Milosevic/Markovic narrative. More than ever before, they are 
subjects to their dramaturgy. 

Having made the political calculation to sacrifice the bulk of his 
army and national infrastructure in exchange for one more stage (the 
last?) in that populist booster-rocket which he launched 
exactly in Kosovo more than a decade ago, Milosevic once again 
places the Serbs in the position of rocket fuel, lit on fire 
to keep all systems "go" for he and Markovic. As they had already 
made abundantly clear well *before* the vacillating Western powers 
finally found the backbone to move from its (increasingly scorned) 
threats to actual force, this 'loathsome couple' has never had any 
interest or priority other than their continued stranglehold on 
Serbian politics. No sacrifice was too great, as long as that aim was 
achieved and maintained. Abandon the Serbs in their ancestral lands 
in Croatia, after triggering, arming, and fuelling their rebellion 
again Zagreb in 1991? No problem, as long as that defeat was their 
victory. Agree to the provisions of a Dayton agreement widely viewed 
as a sell-out by ultra-nationalist Bosnian Serbs -- and this after a 
blood-letting the likes of which Europe hadn't seen since Hitler and 
Stalin? No problem, as long as that defeat was their victory. Hand an 
utterly shattered Vukovar back to Croatia, after reducing it to a 
cinder in order to "liberate" it in 1991? No problem, as long as that 
defeat was their victory. 

Of course, the salient question is: how did this husband-and-
wife team get away with converting such obvious defeats for their 
(only putative) Greater Serbia project into their own personal 
victories? How could the Serbian people have functioned as such putty 
in their hands? Why did the people permit it, rather than demanding 
their heads on a platter? And -- one of the biggest mysteries of all 
-- how is it that it somehow managed to escape the attention of the 
Serbian nation that this string of defeats wouldn't have happened had 
Milosevic not started the conflicts that led to them in the first 

For the answer, you have to circle back in the narrative, 
arriving once more at the starting point, maybe recognizing it 
for the first time. In this case, Kosovo, where Serbia was 
defeated by the Ottomans exactly 610 years ago, where Milosevic 
first found his voice a decade ago, and where all hell is breaking 
loose now (*not* by coincidence). Steering a course back to there -- 
like the military jets high over Ljubljana that I can hear, 
literally, as I write this -- is only following the path taken by 
Milosevic, and thus of course by Serbia. From, and to, Kosovo. To, 
and from Kosovo. Round and round that merry-go-round where history 
doesn't repeat itself so much as it rhymes. Kosovo. The sense of 
persecution, victimization, and historical victory-in-defeat that 
functions as one of the cornerstones of Serbian identity wouldn't be 
too different from many such national mythologies, among many such 
small and mid-sized nations (who, after all, generally *did* 
experience more than their fair share of historical tragedies) -- if 
it hadn't been relentlessly repeated, reinforced, augmented and 
underlined by the totalitarian powers of a mass media under Milosevic 
control. *That's* the crucial difference. Milosevic may be content to 
lose most of his army and much vital infrastructure, but he wouldn't 
be nearly as sanguine about losing TV Serbia. That's for sure.

To dare to mention this victimization 'cliche' about Serbia is to 
be scorned in e-mail flames, as I discovered recently. I'm 
told that it's a useless generalization. But the core of my thesis is 
that it's exactly this syndrome that is the ultimate key to the 
almost alchemical transformation of Serbia's defeats into Milosovic's 
(and his strategist Markovic's) victories. During the last thirteen 
days, with exactly that sense of victimization radically 
(re)confirmed in what only *appears* to the vast majority of the 
Serbs to be a completely *unambiguous* way by NATO bombs, it's 
especially important to call a spade a spade, or rather, a syndrome a 
syndrome. And a syndrome can apply to enough of the critical mass of 
a nation to -- well, *to apply to that nation.* If the Serbs are 
victims and not just victimizers, something which I think is 
self-evidently true, what they're victims *of* is a collossal con 
game played at their expense, and to the direct benefit of their 
ruling couple.

Unfortunately, it appears as though this ultimate gamble by Milosevic 
and Markovic to turn an Iraq-against-the-world style confrontation 
into their personal victory is practically fool-proof -- in the short 
term, anyway. It's no coincidence that the only guy on TV during this 
whole mess who looks supremely self-confident, and who even appears 
to be *enjoying* himself, is Slobodan Milosevic. (Well, why not? we 
know his record, after all.) The double bind which the Serbs find 
themselves entwined in is revealed in the fact that, no matter what 
now happens (i.e., Serbia keeps control of an ethnically-cleansed 
Kosovo, or Serbia is evicted from an ethnically-cleansed Kosovo), the 
'loathsome couple', Milosevic and Markovic, win. Look at the 
alternatives. A Serbian defeat would create yet more populist anger 
-- their proven political fuel. A Serbian victory, on the other hand, 
would be won at such an expense -- and with such a reinforcement of 
Serbia's pariah status internationally -- that it would have the same 
net effect. (Apart from cementing Milosevic's stature as one of the 
greatest heroes in Serbian history, that is.)

In either case, in any case, it needs to be said that Milosevic and 
Markovic, nominal nationalists, have absolutely no concern for 
the fate, prosperity, territorial integrity, etc., etc. of the 
Serbian people. This is all rhetoric, entirely irrelevant except to 
the extent that it provides a spur to manipulate their constituency. 
Whatever concern for the people of Yugoslavia that Milosevic and 
Markovic *do* have is akin to the type of concern that parasites 
display towards their hosts. The people, after all, are the medium 
which they rely on for their own nourishment, glory, and career 
advancement. The understandable confusion and resentment so evident 
in many of the painful e-mails from a Serbia under NATO attack 
function as yet more dismal proof of the success of their efforts. 
Were it not for the fate of the Kosovars -- which justifies the NATO 
attacks, in my view, beyond reasonable doubt -- that rain of "smart" 
bombs would also function as proof of the cooperation of the Western 
powers in the Milosevic/Markovic strategy. 

This last point needs to be expanded on. We've seen Milosevic keep 
the western powers dancing to his 'turbo-folk' tune for ten years 
now. For most of that time, appeasement shaded well into 
collaboration. The creepy part of my thesis is the suggestion that 
NATO -- even while engaged in a massive aerial assault of Yugoslavia, 
even with plenty of justification provided by the state-sponsored 
barbarism taking place in Kosovo -- is still doing the Kolo to his 
gusli. But let it not be said that this last part of that dance was 
easy to achieve for Milosevic. It's *not* so easy to get the full 
attention of NATO, and harder still to actually arrange for an 
expensive, politically risky war with that organization. It takes a 
lot of persistant, dogged hard work. In this case, it took Milosevic 
and Markovic a full decade of steady blood-shed. An effort yielding 
a resume that even the great criminals of history might envy.

So where does that leave us? With the remote hope that the Yugoslav 
people would, by some miracle, snap out of their role as pawns of 
Milosevic and Markovic. Unfortunately, after such a skillful social 
engineering effort as they (and by extension, *their* victims) have 
been, well, the victims of during the decade since Serbian media 
fell under total Milosevic control, that appears to be a very distant 
possibility. *Especially* with the rain of NATO bombs serving to 
point at yet another external enemy being used to unite the 
population around their King and Queen, that very same pair who 
somehow always manage to win while their side loses in the 
game they themselves have initiated. And any hope that the Serbian 
people would "snap out of it" has to be informed by the fact that the 
disaster of Kosovo, and the reaction of the majority of the Serbs to 
the NATO bombardment, only underlines that what we're dealing with 
here is an extremely sophisticated and complicated form of denial on 
the part of a nation which has not managed to recognize the 
nature of its own manipulation, and remove its manipulators from 
their positions as rulers. Even if you don't believe in collective 
responsibility, I would suggest that this denial contains a 
psychological syndrome in which the protagonists of crimes -- the 
*victimizers* -- refuse to concede that status (and therefore their 
own collusion in their own degradation). Instead they repeat, 
mantra-like, the implanted story of their own victimization. It's a 
repetition so pervasive that, as we've seen, it can even take place 
while the shelling of Sarajevo commences, or while upwards of two 
million Kosovars are being forced from their homes. Unfortunately, 
the fact of the NATO assault, whatever it may eventually achieve (and 
I for one hope it will allow the Kosovars to return to the land 
they've lived in for 500 years), could well lock that denial 
definitively into place. A kind of coffin nail, sealing the lid on 
Serbia's collective psyche. If so, it's really the ultimate 
master-stroke by the most accomplished pair of evil-geniuses in 
late-20th century history. Who wins? Milosevic and Markovic. Who 
loses? The Serbian people -- now completely unable to deny the clear 
evidence of their own victim status. 

Not to mention, of course, the Kosovars, and before them the 
Bosniaks, and earlier still the Croats, and maybe upcoming the 
Sandzak Moslems, or who knows, there's a large Hungarian minority in 
Vojvodina, etc., etc., ad infinitum nauseum. Whatever works.

So how long can the Milosevic/Markovic winning streak last? Well, as 
we've already seen, TOO DAMN LONG. But even Kasparov was finally 
defeated by Big Blue. If Serbia's rulers remind me of cartoonist 
Edwin Gorey's 'The Loathsome Couple', others have compared them to 
that other scintillating pair, the Macbeths. Readers of the play will 
remember that in the end, Birnam Wood finally *did* come to Dunsinane 
Castle -- just as the spirit predicted. But it took a while.

Michael Benson  <michael.benson@pristop.si>

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