Late last year in the Hague indicted war criminal Radovan Karadic spoke about how his actions were guided by a ghost. Press speculated that this may be either Slobodan Milosevic, President of Serbia from 1989-1997 and President of Yugoslavia from 1997-2000, or a spirit guide acquired during his recent employment as a New Age healer. However, as many Serbs will tell you, it was a less than subtle reference the ancient Emperor of the Serbs, Tsar Lazar. Successive generations of Serbian leaders have claimed to be guided by him and, in a context where Serbian national values are seen to be passed down through the male line, have also claimed to be his direct descendent. Lazar himself is the central figure in a key national myth, that of Heavenly Serbia. The focal point of the myth of Heavenly Serbia is the Battle of Kosovo fought in 1389 between Serbia and the Ottoman Empire. Apparently, Lazar chose for himself and his national brethren death in battle, thereby rejecting either living dishonourably as a vassal in an alien empire or the fleeting temptations of earthly empire. The myth of Heavenly Serbia has been preserved through six centuries and elaborated at key historical junctures, principally by the Serbian Orthodox church. Thus, it is characterised by a melding of historical event and Christian mythology. At its heart are the biblical ideas of treachery, sacrifice, saintliness and, of course, heavenliness. In some interpretations of the myth earthly Serbia is rendered a heavenly empire. More commonly, Serbia is presented either as a paradise to be achieved at death that will, nonetheless, eventually achieve earthly manifestation. Thus, above all, Heavenly Serbia identifies Serbia with the central raison d’etre of Christianity, resurrection.
For Karadic, no doubt, the meaning of his utterance is clear. His refusal to cooperate with the ICTY (the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia) – a manifestation of a post-national alien empire - renders him the Lazar for modern times. And this is how it will be understood by ordinary Serbs, for Heavenly Serbia is, indeed, ubiquitous, a key framework for conceptualising life’s trials and tribulations within a perpetually defeated nation. Recent events are a case in point. Between 1992 and 2000 the Serboslavic ideal of a Serbian dominated Socialist Yugoslavia in which all Serbs are united in a contiguous geographical and political space, albeit one that encompasses minorities of ethnic others, was won and then dramatically lost. A key emblem of this was the establishment of the Republic of Serbian Krajina on Croatian national territory and then its subsequent crushing defeat that led to the largest population exodus in post-World War II Europe.
This article considers two divergent manifestations of Heavenly Serbia as they unfolded in relation to key events in Serbian history that took place between 1999-2002, the period of my fieldwork in the Serbian para-state of Republika Srpska in Bosnia and Herzegovina. One is that of Serbian state television (RTS), and the other of Zlatko, my Serbian landlord. Like many underemployed men in this economically devastated region, Zlatko and I spent a lot of time watching and talking about TV together. Both of these manifestations are concerned with one overriding thing, conceptualisation of the defeat. However, for Zlatko, like many men for whom occupation is central to identity, narration of defeat focuses, in part, on the world of work.
The Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia collapsed because of economic decentralisation and increased incorporation within the global capitalist economy, that together triggered perilous intra-national competition and eventual fragmentation into separate nation-states. The factories and other large-scale workplaces that had been the melding ground of Yugoslavia’s own brand of cosmopolitanism, ‘Brotherhood and Unity’, were ethnically homogenised. Forced to find other ways of earning a living the displaced often turned to subsistence forms of primary production and trading in the villages from whence they had originated, and often still lived, in this most recently urbanised of European societies. However, in contrast to the factories, these villages, largely because of the practice of endogamy, were characterised by a resilience of ethnic identification. Thus, as the pressures of ethnic-nationalist war intensified, the inter-ethnic dimension of such production and trading was replaced by often murderous competition and antagonism that led to displacement. And now, in the post war and post-socialist era, both those who remained and those who were displaced find themselves facing a new situation – a Croatia, a Serbia and a Bosnia and so on that have privatised and subjected their workers, if they are lucky enough to have jobs at all, to the kinds of vagaries of global capitalist employment.
The article proceeds as follows. I go through each of the dimensions of the myth, from treachery to resurrection. I demonstrate how these are used in the broadcasts of state television and Zlatko to frame key events, from Serbian defeat to job loss, all the time showing how historical narrative is weaved in. Then, by way of interpretation, I draw on the work of Maurice Bloch. I use it to contest the conventional interpretation of the myth as furnishing an idiom of future territorial expansion. Rather, I argue, it functions merely as an idiom of existence in times of threatened humilation, including by late capitalist work practices, and annihilation. I would point out here that this interpretation is backed-up by psephological statistics. Radical Serb political parties still hold roughly 50% of the vote in Serbia. However, the patterns of changed. The bulwark of their support now is less in the countryside, and increasingly in traditionally communist former industrial areas. Here it is clear that Serbian nationalism is not about hating ethnic others, although it may discursively appear as such. Rather, it is an anti-globalization discourse directed at the forces of international capitalism that have annihilated local heavy industry.
Myth, TV and Everyday Life
1999 had been a nadir in Serbia’s nationalist ambitions. International talks were held at Rambouillet in an attempt to halt the repression of the Albanian majority in Kosovo and escalating violence between Albanian guerrillas and Serbian military forces. However, Slobodan Milosevic refused to sign-up to a peace agreement that would have re-established Kosovo’s autonomy. In turn, NATO intervened militarily, bombing Serbian military installations in Kosovo itself and, importantly, bombing Belgrade, the Serbian Capital. Serbia capitulated, withdrawing its forces from Kosovo, and the great majority of the Kosovan Serb population followed them. With Kosovo now effectively rendered foreign territory, Serbia had lost its symbolic heartland. Much of 2000 was taken up, by media and ordinary people, with conceptualising defeat. According to television the NATO intervention in Kosovo and in Bosnia and Herzegovina were acts of Judas-like treachery by the ‘West’ against a former ally in the struggles against both Nazism and Islamic Fundamentalism, that the irredentism of Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo’s Albanians were merely contemporary manifestations. In contrast, for Zlatko, it had been the Serbian state and his Croatian and Muslim so-called fellow Yugoslavs that had acted treacherously. The Serbian state had covertly armed Serbs in places like Krajina and given them a clear directive to build a Greater Serbia through the framework of autonomous Serbian republics. The Serbs had, he argued, been the historic defenders of the Yugoslav ideal, and so this republic wouyld guarantee brotherhood and unity against the ethno-nationalist aspirations of Croatia. In the event, Krajina was lost bit-by-bit in a Croatian military offensive that could, he argued, have easily been thwarted had the full might of the JNA (Yugoslav Peoples Army) been brought to bear. Instead, Krajina had been betrayed by Milosevic in exchange for the lifting of international sanctions and, it was thought, following a covert deal between Milosevic and Franjo Tudjman, the President of Croatia, that had smoothed the way for peaceful partition of Bosnian territory between the two nations. Creeping defeat at he hands of Croatian militia was marked by Zlatko’s sacking from the power plant in the Krajina city of Knin where he worked as chief engineer. While some of his largely Croatian staff, many of whom he had shared the best part of twenty happy working years with, watched him depart with tears in their eyes, others were only too keen to help him clear his office and take his rank.
Milosevic’s intransigence at Rambouillet was regarded with considerable ambivalence by many Serbs that I spoke to. For, while Kosovo is widely regarded as Serbia’s heartland, it is also regarded as the quintessential locus of Balkan orientalism (Todorova: 1997) and rural backwardness (Ramet: 1996). As Zlatko put it, “why the fuck give everything up for Rwanda.” Nonetheless, television celebrated the intransigence of the Serbian state, seeing it as tantamount to a form of noble sacrifice that had typified the nation from ‘Kosovo’ onwards. Re-run documentaries of WWII brought home the point. Within two days of their giving in to threats from Hitler and signing-up to the Axis Tripartite Pact the government and the regency of Prince Paul were overthrown in a military coup. In his broadcast to the nation Patriarch Gavrilo, the then head of the Serbian Orthodox church, declared, “Before our nation in these days the question of our fate again presents itself. This morning at dawn the question received its answer. We chose the heavenly kingdom – the kingdom of truth, justice, national strength, and freedom” (cited in Emmert: 1990, 140). Predictably, in due course, Hitler initiated Operation Punishment, Serbia was dismembered, hundreds of thousands lost their lives and many more were forced to flee. Concurrently, the Kosovo exodus, and other recent instances of its type, particularly from Krajina and Sarajevo, were celebrated as defining Serbian experiences. Notably, RTS re-ran a dramatised documentary of Petrovic’s Agonie et Resurrection that describes the remarkable actions of Serbs during the Great War when, facing occupation by the combined forces of Austria-Hungary, Germany and Bulgaria, King Peter, Prince Regent Alexander, the entire Serbian government, the army and thousands of civilians undertook an horrendous retreat through Kosovo, Montenegro, Albania and Corfu, where they were to regroup and prepare for return and national resurrection.
For Zlatko, however, whilst these experiences resonated with those of the Krajina Serbs, their exodus was anything but self-initiated. Despite atrocities committed against his own family in WWII, in the spirit of ‘Brotherhood and Unity’ he had lived peacefully, if somewhat cautiously, with his Croatian neighbours, even during wartime. On the outer fringes of the Republic of Serbian Krajina and near to the military frontline, he had even been able to make use of his good relations, supplementing his dwindling income from the power plant by exploiting inter-ethnic disparities in supply and demand amongst the various groups that he came across in his movements between the village and Knin. All the time taking a considerable cut, he explained, he took food from Croatian peasants in exchange for cigarettes from Serbian soldiers and, on several occasions, took arms from cash strapped Serbian soldiers to cashed-up Croatian militia. The end of the Serbian Republic of Krajina came almost without warning. On one of his economic forays he had been warned by Serbian military that a Croatian military offensive was imminent, that the JNA would not resist and that, as a minority Serb in a Croatian dominated village, his family was in danger. The Serbian military offered them safe passage that night. However, in exchange he was instructed to assist a ‘friend’ in planting land mines on his neighbour’s farms. He did as he was told, all the time, however, recording on a map the mine’s locations. A vehicle was sent to pick him and his family up, but before being allowed to leave he was stripped of the map. On the resumption of peaceful relations between Croatia and Serbia, Zlatko returned to reclaim his property. He visited his old neighbours to let them know of his intention to return. They told him that they would have been willing to protect him in the event of the arrival of Croatian militia. However, he had lost their loyalty and was now no longer welcome. They had learned that he had been in cahoots with the JNA and that, in an act that they regarded as mindless cruelty typical of his people, had planted the mines. His stories about his efforts to arm Croatian militia, about the pressure he was put under and about the map that he had planned for use in de-mining fell on deaf ears. How could they possibly believe him? They had learned the story of his treachery from his very own people, Republic of Serbian Krajina officials. The villagers made their feelings about Zlatko’s imminent return clear. When he returned to Republika Srpska to collect his family they burned his house down. So, what he had initially seen as an, albeit forced, sojourn in Republika Srpska, had now become exile. And, his exile was not simply a matter of ethnic cleansing. As a member of a minority in Krajina, now sovereign territory of Croatia, he had zero utility for the Serbian state. In contrast, as a member of a majority in Republika Srpska, a quasi-independent entity within a Muslim-majority nation state, Bosnia and Herzegovina, that Serbia was desperate to exercise control over, he had considerable such utility. For Zlatko exile was not an act of Serbian self-sacrifice. Rather, reflecting a policy of ethno-demographic consolidation (see also, Duijzings), it was part of a more general sacrifice of Serbs by his former Croatian and Muslim neighbours and, crucially, by the Serbian state itself.
Through 2000 the work of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) intensified. Searching for evidence with which to build cases against suspected war criminals, it uncovered more and more mass graves in the territories from which Serbian military had withdrawn. Though often contested as part of a ‘Western’ conspiracy against Serbia, such evidence of the ‘cleansing’ of Serbia’s ethnic others was becoming increasingly hard to refute. In this context, the response of television was complex. Since he had been indicted by the ICTY to stand trial for war crimes, Serbian state television was anxious to distance Milosevic from blame. Rather, it lay responsibility at the door of Bosnian and Croatian Serbs, such as those in the Republic of Serbian Kranjina, who, apparently, had acted independently of the Serbian state. Nonetheless, in many respects even their actions were justified. A line of moral equivalence was often developed, in which evidence of mass graves of Serbian victims was shown. Additionally, ethnic cleansing was justified, most forcefully by reference to the notorious Memorandum of the Serbian Academy of Sciences (X)as a bulwark against historic processes of assimilation, emigration and genocide of the Serbs, dating from ‘Kosovo’ through to the present day. RTS engaged, in this respect, in a process of selective remembering that has been well documented elsewhere (see, for example Hoepken: 1999; Jansen: 2002), the centrepiece of which was broadcasting of the interment of the hidden tombs of victims of Ustasha genocide committed by both Catholics and Muslims during World War II. The graves had, in the spirit of preserving Brotherhood and Unity been strategically forgotten under Tito’s communist regime (see, for example, Bax: 1997; Denich: 1994). The broadcasts communicated the message that recent ethnic cleansing had been a legitimate pre-emptive response in the context of the ethnic cleansing of Serbs that would otherwise have resulted from the independence of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and Kosova.
Having said this, the broadcasts contained another message. Victims were often represented as the citizenry of Heavenly Serbia. For example, several programs re-ran the famous speech of Bishop Jovan of Sabac-Valjevo, who stated that, “Since Prince Lazar and Kosovo the Serbs, above all, have been creating heavenly Serbia, which today must certainly have grown to become the largest state in heaven. If we only think of those innocent victims of the last war, millions and millions of Serbian men, women and children killed or tortured in the most terrible way or thrown into pits by Ustasha criminals, then we can understand that today’s Serbian empire is in the heavens (cited in Radic: 1995, ix). For Zlatko Heavenly Serbia was not simply a preserve of the dead. Above all, the Krajina Serbs, both dead and alive, are “truly God’s chosen children”. As ethnic minority warrior frontiersman, initially of Christendom and latterly of Greater Serbia, they had suffered disproportionately. Most, Zlatko pointed out, were in touch with living memories of the Ustasha policy on the Serbian question of “convert a third, remove a third, kill a third”, in which burning alive was a preferred method. Their recent exodus, though engineered by the Serbian state, was one further example of the persecution of the Krajina Serbs. In this context, he argued, the ethnic cleansing that had been integral to the building of the ‘Republic of Serbian Krajina’ had a particular significance. Not merely pre-emptively legitimate, it was an action integral to the very being of his warrior class of people. Zlatko liked to recite the work of Njegos – Bishop Petar Petrovic II, arguably Serbia’s national epic poet. In The Mountain Wreath (1857) Njegos glorifies the slaughter of Slavic Muslims and celebrates the somewhat un-Orthodox act of the granting of holy communion to the slayers without prior confession. This makes clear the proposition that the extermination of ethnic others is inherently sanctifying and purifying. For Zlatko, the killing that his people had engaged in was the basis of their heavenliness. Indeed, he told me, he now feels a sense of idiocy about the remorse he felt for planting those landmines. The rosy memories he had of working with his Croatian and Muslim neighbours in the fields and smallholdings, clearing, planting and harvesting were nothing but Yugonostagic dreams of an impossible cosmopolitanism. Now, all that allows him to sleep at night as he wrestles with the travails of insecure employment and financial ruin are the dreams of those same landmines blowing his former neighbours to smithereens.
Through 2000 the domestic political legitimacy of Milosevic was eroded by a range of factors – the loss of territory, the Belgrade bombings, corruption and embezzlement scandals and, finally, an unconstitutional attempt to hold on to the Presidency following elections. Following mass protests he was forced to resign the Presidency. Shortly afterwards he was given over to the ICTY. These events precipitated a spate of television retrospectives in which Milosevic was unambiguously presented as having inherited Lazar’s saintly mantle. This was evidenced in a range of events, from his very public political conversion from communist to nationalist in Kosovo itself (Silber and Little: 1995: 37-47), to his descent from the skies by helicopter to lead, in the presence of Lazar’s remains and an audience of 2 million, fully one tenth of the Serbian population (Sells: 2001, 181) the 600th anniversary commemorations of ‘Kosovo’, through to his intransigence in failing to sign-up to Rambouillet. According to television narrative his intransigence was grounded in the certainty that whilst Serbia would loose to NATO, his status as the new Lazar, who fought for a righteous but doomed cause, was guaranteed. Zlatko could only look upon such reportage with disbelief. Milosevic was, indeed, a celestial being of sorts. However, referring to a commonplace imagery from rural Serbia, this being was, for Zlatko, more of the vampire variety (Barber: 1984, 15-21). Through war and corruption he had “sucked the lifeblood out of ordinary Serbs.” Zlatko’s current work life, as an employee in a new German-owned mineral plant, was, he bemoaned, the epitome of this condition. Gone are the security and status of his days in the communist power plant, replaced by the uncertainties of sporadic employment, minimal benefits and, worst of all in this context of patriarchal values, the indignity of having to work under a stroppy young frauline.
Much of late 2000 and beyond was taken up with events at the ICTY. Upon arriving at the Hague Milosevic stated his refusal to recognise the legality of the court’s jurisdiction, and insisted on conducting his own defence. Simultaneously, he experienced a worsening of his heart and blood pressure conditions. Debate raged over the cause of this, especially after a foreign substance was found in his blood stream that weakened the effects of his medication. For some this must have been self administered in an attempt to obtain the cardiological treatment he was seeking in Russia, and for others it was a covert attempt by the ICTY to assassinate him in order to save face - the case against him was, it was argued, collapsing. Television presented Milsosevic’s treatment by the ICTY as tantamount to a Christ-like persecution. And, reflecting another facet of the melding of the national and the biblical, his response was presented as quintessentially Serbian, a manifestation of its small nation in a context of great powers, David in the face of Goliath, character (see also, Van de Port, 1999). Nonetheless, the imminence of his death was presented as a near certainty. In this context, and with an eye to potential martyrdom, feverish concern was expressed about what would happen to his remains. Would they be released from Brussells? Would they be cremated? Would they be conveniently lost? Viewers were reminded of the importance of the remains of Serbia’s slain heroes, its leaders of the citizenry of Heavenly Serbia. The dramatisation of Petrovic’s Agonie et Resurrection reminded the audience of how the retreating Serbian army regrouped in Corfu and then returned to fight alongside the Allied forces in Salonika, and how the Serbian government in exile laid the foundations of the post-war Yugoslav state. With the Allied victory the new ‘Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes’ was established. Federal in appearance, it became, in fact, a Serbo-Slavic centralised state and constitutional monarchy presided over by the Serbian Karadjordjevic dynasty. Resurrection! For Zlatko, for whom the historic experience of the Serbs is akin to that of the Israelites (see also, Lowenthal: 1998) Petrovic’s tale of retreat and resurrection resonated. Greater Serbia would indeed be built, and its heartland would be in places such as Republika Srpska where displaced and newly radicalized Serbs, from Krajina, Bosnia and elsewhere had found only a temporary home. However, a typical Yugoslav secularist, he had no time for some of resurrectionist “mumbo-jumbo” that church authorities and television had brought to the celebration of nationalism. An important aspect of the events described in the dramatization of Agonie and Resurrection was the decision to take into exile the casketed remains of Stefan Prvovencani, the ‘First Crowned’ Nemanjic monarch, who had died some 700 years previously, and later return them to Serbia where they would play a key role in ritual surrounding the inception of the new Kingdom. Likewise, RTS re-ran footage of events preceding the Yugoslav Wars where Lazar’s formerly exiled remains were, in an act designed to mark the sacred space of the nation, ritually transported through areas that would in the following years become Greater Serbia. Nonetheless, following regime change in Serbian politics, regime change took place at RTS too. And, by the time of Milosevic’s death in 2006 a more critical and even ribald tone was permitted. Much, for example, was made of the actions of Miroslav Milosevic, a leading member of an anti-Milosevic group, who was arrested after leading a gang who claimed to have driven a wooden stake through the heart of the late President. The gang had had to prevent him returning from the dead.
Mythic Structure of Belonging
In a series of books and articles, beginning with From Blessing to Violence (1986) through to Prey into Hunter (1992) Maurice Bloch develops an alternative theory of the politics of religious experience that focuses particularly on ritual and myth. He argues that there is a core in all such phenomena that is both universal and unchanging. Heavenly Serbia, it may be argued, is a representative example. Thus far, I have described the use of Heavenly Serbia in contrasting conceptualisations of Serbian experience. Serbs are represented as either having been betrayed by the ‘West’, or the Serbian state. Serbia as a totality is represented as having engaged in national self-sacrifice, or Serbia’s peripheries are presented as having been sacrificed on behalf of Serbia as a totality by the nation-state. Heavenliness is presented as a preserve of the nation’s leaders, or as a preserve of the citizenry of its periphery. The saintliness that, on one hand, is presented as a preserve of the nation’s leaders is, contrastingly, ironicized as malign celestiality. And, finally, national resurrection is represented as intimately connected to leadership, or as a capacity of the citizenry of the periphery. The contrast is not unlike those recorded in other ethnographic accounts of competing visions of the nation between cores and peripheries in other parts of Southern Europe (see, for example, Herzfeld: 1986,). Nonetheless, across these manifestations of Heavenly Serbia its core elements of treachery, sacrifice, heavenliness, saintliness and resurrection are shared and constant.
Beyond this, Bloch argues, the core of ritual and myth involves a representation of the subject as engaging in a process of what he calls ‘rebounding violence’. Firstly, Bloch argues, religious ritual and myth invariably involve, through actions such as symbolic killing, a departure from the earthly. This is, I would argue, commensurate with the centrality of sacrifice in representations of Serbian experience, from the choice of death rather than subjugation through to retreat rather than vassaldom and to exodus rather than minority status within alien nation-states.
Secondly, he argues, having departed this life initiates are presented as joining the realm of the transcendental. In some instances in the Serbian case, such as Patriarch Gavrilo’s portrayal of sacrificial submission to Nazi genocide this is presented as a literal entry into a transcendental realm. Bloch then goes on to point out that presentation of the initiate as part of a transcendental realm has, however, minimal politico-social value in itself, since, distinct from the realm of the earthly, it has no impact upon the earthly. Thus, such ritual invariably offers a representation of return. However, unlike Van Gennep and Turner, for example, who present this merely as a reintegration into the earthly (society), for Bloch it is a return in which the transcendental remains attached to the ritual initiate. The conjoining of transcendental and earthly, particularly through ideas of heavenliness and saintliness, is replete within representations of Serbian national experience, whether through a literal conjoining of the earthly and transcendental by interment and the presence of the dead in the everyday, through the presentation of leaders as saintly emissaries or through the representation of present day Serbs as members of lineages whose defining experiences are suffering and death. In an important addendum to his thesis Bloch argues that the initiate in religious ritual is invariably represented, following his symbolic killing, as regaining vitality on return. However, according to Bloch, it is not the earthly vitality of the realm from and to which the initiate has symbolically departed and returned, but rather a conquered vitality obtained from ‘outside’ beings – plants, animals, women and other peoples, for example. The killing of others is clearly central to ideas of Serbian nationhood, especially in the Njegosian association of ethnic cleansing and heavenliness. In ritual, Bloch demonstrates, this conquering of others is also symbolically enacted at the level of selfhood. Identity is conceptualised as dualistic, and ritual involves the defeat of the aspect of selfhood (such as the feminine in his Merina case) associated with earthliness, and the victory of the aspect of selfhood associated with the transcendental (the masculine). Likewise, ethnic cleansing is for many Serbs conceptualised as the conquering of earthly self in the other. Commonly, ethnic others are represented as Serbs who have been induced to lapse by the earthly temptations of empire, by, for example, the privileges granted by Ottomans in exchange for Islamic conversion. And, it this idea of conquered vitality that, above all, for Bloch, places religious myth and ritual in a position in which they tend to furnish idioms “of expansionist violence to people.” However, most importantly, for Bloch, the conjoining of earthly and transcendental presages a conquering and transformation of the earthly per se such that it becomes transcendental in itself.
In these times of defeat – of geographical and political division from other Serbs, of minority status, of minimal political autonomy, of occupation and, crucially of post-communist subjection to the insecurities and humiliations of late capitalist forms of working life, in short of annihilation, rather than furnishing an idiom of waiting (for future national expansion), Heavenly Serbia furnishes an idiom simply of being.
This article is draws substantially on published work (Dawson: 2009), addressing its core findings to the issues of work, globalization and cosmopolitanism.