Letter to a Friend….
By Richard Byrne
December 7, 2007
So you’re almost alone now. Like Garbo. Except for Kosovo. And Kosovo is leaving soon. I think you know that already.
And when Kosovo leaves, you will be alone at last. Is this really what you wanted? And, if not, how did it happen? Why do all your neighbors look the other way now?
The only group that really does want you is the European Union. It finds you geographically irresistible. And still you push the EU away. Why? Do you really prefer to flirt with Russia?
I’m writing this letter to you because it makes me sad to see you all by yourself. To hear the politicians and intellectuals of the world mock you and insult you.
For example, I was at a party with a prominent Canadian politician last week. When the topic of the Balkans came up, he proclaimed that, in his view, Belgrade was a “sewer.”
Imagine my shock. I love Belgrade. It’s not a sewer. But that’s a very common opinion in the West these days.
And do you know what’s worse? As I rose to your defense with that politician, Serbia, I discovered that it’s very hard to defend you these days.
Let me say, in advance, that I know I am an American. And such advice from an American might seem presumptuous. We have very big problems of our own. Nobody wants to know us anymore either.
I read last month that The Pew Global Attitudes Project took a poll recently and found that the favorable view of the United States has now slipped to 9 % in Turkey. Back in 2000, that number was at 52 %. In Indonesia, we are down to 29 %. We used to be at 75 % in 2000.
But the elephant shits where it wants to shit, right? And Serbia – for all its important geography and rich history and vital culture – is not an elephant. Even in Europe.
But I digress. We were talking about how one wants to be around you anymore. Whenever I see you on my television, Serbia, you’re always in trouble: protecting a war criminal or standing proudly on some pedantic legalism. Last week, I saw a news report on American television which reported that you were cruelly neglecting mentally ill patients in your country.
Like I say, it’s very sad. What makes it sadder is history. Serbia’s present unpopularity is a rather new phenomenon. For centuries, outsiders looked on you not with fear and loathing but as a brave underdog.
First, the world saw you take your freedom back from the Ottoman Empire. Yes, it was messy and sometimes unpleasant, but very few nations have an immaculate conception.
And yes, there was all that business with the Archduke and the Black Hand and lighting the spark of World War I. You survived that potential P.R. disaster, too, with your positive image largely intact. You were on the victorious side and the victors write history.
And then there was your greatest moment of glory. Serbia stood up to the Nazis. Bolje rat nego pakt. Yes, you suffered greatly. But you were also heroes – and at just the right time in history.
Has there ever been a better public relations agent for Serbia than Rebecca West? Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is the greatest travel book ever written in English – and she told your stories and your legends so wonderfully to the West that they survived World War II and communism and still had tremendous power even when Tito died in 1980.
All that good P.R. was part of the problem, of course. The worst thing anyone can do is believe their own P.R., right?
And somehow those old stories of tragedy and betrayal and loss were transmogrified. A history that should have been remembered so as not to be repeated – as George Santayana once said – became a contemporary danger that needed to be vanquished.
It’s all there in the SANU Memorandum of 1986. You were strong, Serbia, but you wrote to your neighbors as if you were a victim. And the diminishment of Serbia in that memorandum? A self-fulfilled prophecy.
I bring up George Santayana because you, Serbia, actually turned his famous aphorism on its head: You remembered the past too well, and then willfully repeated it, with the polarities reversed. Serbs remembered themselves as victims – and became oppressors. They remembered the crimes committed against them – and then committed similar crimes.
I won’t waste too much of this letter rehashing the wars in Slovenia and Croatia and Bosnia. But I could. Even now, you do not know enough about the wars in former Yugoslavia. Most of your media kept you in the dark about what was happening in Serbia’s name – or twisted those events into something unrecognizable to those of us outside Serbia.
Those wars are the foundation of your present unpopularity. While you were being kept in the dark, the rest of the world was not being kept in the dark. We saw Vukovar and Sarajevo and Srebrenica. And we saw that it was Serbs in those countries who were doing those things – mostly with the help of Serbia’s government, or, at times, with a shocking and complicit silence from Serbians themselves.
Your crimes were so immense that they threw a shadow on the crimes of others – and the cruelties inflicted on Serbs. Operation Storm is seen by many in the West not as a war crime, but as a justified settling of the score.
Those people are wrong. But they argue that the crimes done to Serbs were karmic retribution – and a rough justice of a sort. And the court of public opinion often ignores the mere letter of the law. (Something that Mr. Kostunica has never really learned, has he?)
It’s the same story with the 1999 NATO bombings. The West saw a repeat of Croatia and Bosnia in Kosovo about to happen. And when it weighed the suffering of ordinary Serbs against the maintenance of political order in Europe, you lost. Again.
But as I say, the era of Milosevic was the foundation of your present unpopularity. Wars do end. Bad leaders are deposed. Countries rehabilitate themselves and rejoin the community of nations.
And this where I find you so difficult to defend, Serbia. Instead of destroying the foundation of your unpopularity, you have clung to it for years and built new structures of injustice on it.
You’ve built a safe house for the biggest war criminals. You’ve built a fancy new dacha for Putin.
And those are just the big things. You’re always in the news for stupid things, too. You get banned from soccer championships for rioting and fined by UEFA for racism. And you have a reputation for intolerance of gays and lesbians and foreigners.
The shocking video on American television the last two weeks was a perfect example, Serbia. The NBC television network ran stories for a week about the shameful neglect of your own mental patients – even children! The pictures of grown men in cribs were bad enough. But the video of emaciated and neglected children was a shameful nightmare.
And this is where the bad P.R. comes in. Yes, there are such conditions in many countries – even members of the European Union and the United States.
But the West is sick of hearing bad news from you, Serbia. And they are willing to believe the worst about you, Serbia, because they have come to expect it.
Your public response to this mental institution scandal is a perfect case in point. For me, someone who is a friend to you, this response is the worst part of all.
The proper response to such a shameful display is to show shame and remorse and compassion – and then begin to fix the problem. And to be fair, Mr. Ljajic has said some good things.
But your prime minister, also speaking on your behalf, in an even louder voice, says that it’s not your fault. It’s bad P.R. Let me quote his words: “We are witnesses to systematic propaganda against Serbia, loaded with fascist overtones.”
These words would be laughable if they were not so grim and pathological. To say that the Serbian state is the victim in this situation is indefensible. Even your best friends cannot defend it. The victims are the people in those institutions – and the good name of ordinary Serbs.
Yes, this is a harsh letter. But I want to end it on a positive note. Serbia has given the world so much. You have a proud history and great ambassadors in culture and the arts.
Not so long ago, when the world thought of Serbia, they thought about Kis and Makavejev. Large, generous talents who found inspiration – and not incarceration – in Serbia’s history. They embraced the world on your behalf.
Your friends – including me – think you have more great talents like that. When we talk about Serbia, we talk about Rambo Amadeus and EXIT festival. When someone calls Belgrade a sewer, we say it’s not true. Not true at all.
Bu the first move in repairing the bad P.R. is yours, Serbia. Your friends can’t do it for you.
You have to close the door on history. You must recognize that justice often lives beyond the mere letter of the law – or the U.N. resolution – and fulfill the obligations that the world has placed on you. You have to accept that a peaceful Serbia and Kosovo in the EU is the best way to protect and empower the Serb minority in the province and also defend its treasures of Serbian culture.
Your enemies are willing to consign you to the darkness for another generation if you do not help yourself. They are happy to have more sanctions and more conflict in Serbia because they believe that you deserve such a fate. That you cannot avoid it. That you cannot change. They think this bad P.R. is your destiny.
Your friends – like me – are distressed to hear such things. But only you, Serbia, can prevent it from becoming your fate.
Only you can decide that you do not want to be alone.
-- Yours, Richard Byrne
See also: To Belgrade with (tough) love I wrote an open letter to Serbia. Now Serbia's writing back, and the responses prove how difficult integrating the country into Europe will be. By Richard Byrne, December 18, 2007