Saving Private Havel [PROPERLY edited version]

Michael Pollak mpollak at
Sun Apr 25 19:03:41 PDT 1999

[Sorry, that last one squirted out before I justified and proofed it. Please read this instead]

[This is the most intelligent sustained piece of political theory on the war I've read so far. But, in its original form, it suffered from the usual infelicities that result from trying to render central European thinking into English, especially when done by someone who speaks English as a second language. In order to help it reach the audience it deserves, I've undertaken it upon myself to perform some aggressive but (I hope) sympathetic editing. And I invite all those that stopped part way the first time to try again.]

[And thanks again to Doug for continuing to track down great stuff in all the nooks and crannies of the internet.]

The Official Bastard Statement on the War in Yugoslavia by Boris Buden (editor in chief, Zagreb/Vienna)

[Bastard is the separately issued "magazine section" of the journal "Arkzin," a Croatian anti-war journal that is very critical of its government. Its title is meant to celebrate the opposite of Croatian homogeneity: people as as happily mixed-up mongrels. Some speculate that the Tudjman government lets it continue only because it makes it look as if there were a free press in Croatia, which is important from an international support point of view. And because they think its influence is so small that it can't hurt them.]

Saving Private Havel

New graffiti is to be seen these days in bombed out Belgrade: SLOBO KLINTONE (Slobo, you Clinton!). This simple but poignant message reveals the abyss in which genuine democracy has fallen since the beginning of the NATO military campaign against Yugoslavia. It's not just a sign of a moral equivalence, or a political deadlock, or a folie a deux that is escalating before our eyes. This truly witty identification of the two leaders indicates the extent to which they are related on a much deeper level.

In an open letter addressed to his friends in Yugoslavia two days after the first bombs fell, when the Slovenian publicist Lev Kreft addressed the hopeless situation of Serbian democrats "wedged between Sloba and Bill," he related his vision of Clinton walking the streets of Pristina and saying to the Albanians: "As long as I am with you, no one will dare beat you." People acquainted with the recent history of Kosovo are familiar with Kreft's allusion. On April 24, 1987 in Kosovo Polje, a Serbian dominated suburb of Pristina, Milosevic bellowed this phrase to a crowd of Serbs protesting against Albanian oppression. The police, controlled by Albanian officials, used night-sticks to break up the crowd. But Milosevic, at that time the head of the Serbian Communist Party, stepped out to protect them. This phrase "enthroned him as a tsar," according to M. Solevic, one of the leaders of the Kosovo Serbs. Looking back, this phrase changed the course of history and started the chain of events that have culminated in the NATO attack on Yugoslavia.

But what really happened there? During his famous speech in Kosovo Polje, Milosevic told the Kosovo Serbs: "You should stay here. This is your land. These are your houses. Your meadows and gardens. Your memories. You shouldn't abandon your land ... " He appealed neither to some kind of communist ideology nor to national values, but rather invoked universal human rights. The famous switch from communism to nationalism did not occur directly. It was mediated by humanitarianism. Milosevic offered to protect the rights of a minority oppressed by a majority. And under the auspices of the given constitutional framework of Albanian autonomy, the majority had the state on its side. For Milosevic the system was too narrow to cope with the problem, and therefore he stepped outside of it. His solution was to be found "either through the existing institutions or not. On the streets or inside, by populist methods or elite." This was the start of Milosevic's so-called "anti-bureaucratic revolution": encouraging the solution of a political problem by ignoring the "bureaucratic obstacles" inherent in a given institutional system.

The analogy between the way Milosevic and Clinton treat similar political problems is obvious. Was it not the humanitarian argument -- instead of a clear political objective -- that has been used by NATO to justify its military intervention in Yugoslavia? Have the interventionists not ignored the legal, institutional framework of the UN Security Council, the UN Charter and thus all of international law? Both Milosevic and Clinton have done the same thing. They identified some fundamental human right, hegemonized it, bypassed an "obsolete" institutional framework, and acted. In this respect, one could say that Milosevic has already won the war. He lured NATO into playing his dirty game.

The breakdown of former Yugoslavia showed us all how dangerous this kind of game can be. It was Milosevic who started to ignore the Yugoslav institutions in 1987, to undermine their authority, and ultimately to demolish them. What are the dangers of a world-wide "anti-bureaucratic revolution" today, set into motion by NATO? This remains to be seen.

Forward Into the Better Past

At this point we should recall the famous aphorism (attributed to Winston Churchill) about democracy: the worst of all possible systems, but there isn't a better one. Of course it's true that an attempt to act politically or militarily to protect human rights in a sovereign country where they are being violated by the state itself would probably always be blocked in the Security Council due to a conflict of interests among its members. There is always some kind of antagonism which cannot be completely resolved, and this makes the Security Council the worse of all possible security councils. But do we have a better one? NATO has treated UN institutions in the manner which Bolsheviks treated the democratic institution of parliament -- as a bourgeois club where genuine rights have no chance of being recognised because they will be blocked by some particular (class or national) interest. So the Bolsheviks eliminated the parliament, and the consequences are usually summed up under the concept of totalitarianism. They did it in the name of some common good, of course, in the same manner in which NATO is demolishing the institutions of international law today. NATO represents its cause as one of universal human rights, just as the Bolsheviks did, and just as the Serbian Communist Party leader Milosevic did 12 years ago in Kosovo Polje. But none of them are universal causes. "Universal" means rights; rights means institutions of law; and real universal causes aren't used to trump the institutions of law. What is used instead is universal *sounding* presentations of particular interests. These are known as "humanitarian" causes, a term that at least sounds universal.

This fact should be obvious to the world public. After all, how can one claim to be a protector of minority rights after having provided extensive military and political support for severe oppression of other minorities, like the Kurds? Even if we grant the use of force is justified as a means of achieving democratic goals, how can one bomb Belgrade without bombing Ankara? And don't we have to bomb Moscow because of Chechnya and Peking because of Tibet? "Why can't we do to our Albanians what the Turks have done to their Kurds?" may seem like a cynical question, but so long the world policeman is claiming to enforce equal justice and universal rights, there does not appear to be an good way answer to it.

What is the political objective of the NATO intervention in Yugoslavia? As far as we know, it is supposed to be political autonomy for the Albanians in Kosovo within the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia -- something they had under the Tito Constitution of 1974, and which was taken away from them by Milosevic in 1989. NATO wants to give this institutional framework back to them. As a political project, this endeavour is a historical scandal: nineteen of the most advanced liberal-democratic states of the world bombing an ex-communist one to reinstate a communist political status quo ante. NATO is bombing its political way into a better past. How can this desperate political eclecticism be understood? Why has NATO turned communist or "Yugo-nostalgic," now that it really is too late? The pre-1990 Yugoslav Federation (which actually was a confederation), in which Serbs accounted for no more the 37 % of the entire population, was the only realistic institutional and political framework for the political autonomy of Kosovo. Under democratic conditions in *that* Yugoslavia, a politician such as Milosevic never would have had a chance to win an election with a Serbian nationalist program. But that Yugoslavia is gone.

A Dwarf, Not a Giant

The political nonsense of the NATO military engagement in Yugoslavia reveals its very sense. Bombs are not falling to enforce a political solution. They ARE the political solution. After only a week of bombing, President Clinton stated explicitly what the objective of this bombing was: victory. What that means politically is entirely left up in the air because there *is* no political strategy behind NATO. Its members have never made a choice between the two contradictory principles that are at stake here, between state sovereignty and national self-determination. Rather they have chosen to recognise and violate both at the same time. The reason is that NATO doesn't have a real solution for this dilemma: one that is that is democratic, that can claim universal validity, and that can challenge the existing world order where it is unjust.

This is why NATO cites "humanitarian causes" as a motive for military intervention and not the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The "humanitarian cause" is the highest level of universalisation that the USA and its NATO allies can afford. It is not merely a rhetorical excuse for the promotion of some dirty power interests, as so many leftists claim today. There is no so-called hidden agenda behind the NATO military action in Yugoslavia, like the alleged plan to control the flow of Central Asian oil through the Kosovo-crossroad, or to seize the gold which, it is rumoured, has recently been found there. This old-fashioned materialist fantasy about politics being the superstructure of some basic economic interests doesn't help us to understand the true motive of the NATO intervention. Rather it suppresses its real political meaning in the same way as the humanitarian rhetoric does. For what is hidden behind the both is not an insatiable imperialist giant, but a poor, frustrated and confused political dwarf. Nothing expresses this fact better then the ever-larger waves of moral scandalising over the tragical fate of the innocent victims of war and genocide. The real scandal today, at the end of 20th century is not the fact that people are being expelled from their homes, raped and killed before the eyes of a helpless democratic audience. Viewed from our own historical experience here in Yugoslavia, this has the banality of an everyday event. The real scandal is that this democratic audience and its political representatives still don't have any political answer to this challenge. Democracy doesn't have an answer to its own worst problem: the fact that it only exists within the nation state.

The ideological purpose of the humanitarian approach is to represent war as some kind of natural catastrophe. It naturalises social and political phenomena in a way that blocks any kind of rational political engagement. It leaves only two actors on the stage of history: an anonymous mass of innocent victims and a couple of pathological monsters. To help the one means to exterminate the other. Concrete political antagonisms, the whole battlefield of political concepts and their protagonists, no longer appear on the scene.

This distorted picture of a particular historical situation is completely at odds with reality, of course, but not with needs of those who have produced it. As a genuine ideological fantasy, it serves its purpose even when -- especially when -- it is extremely contrafactual. Something that everybody can perceive is a simple lie -- "We are bombing Milosevic, not the Serbian people" -- proves to be a very useful lie for both sides, for those who are being bombed as much as for those who are doing the bombing. For it makes Serbian people retroactively innocent, i.e. not responsible for all the atrocities either committed by the war criminals living undisturbed among them, or induced by the politicians that they freely elected. On the contrary, it buttresses the illusion that people in a democratic system never make a false choice. And if they do make one, it is always due to a "lack of objective information." If Serbs in Belgrade only knew what their soldiers and policemen are up to now in Kosovo, i.e. a brutal ethnic cleansing, they wouldn't allow it to happen. Unfortunately, the evil dictator has robbed them of free media, and thus has turned them into innocent victims of manipulation.

Of course, the western democratic audience gives much more credence to this naive illusion then the Serbs themselves. It helps them to suppress perhaps the severest trauma of democracy: the fact that there is no hundred percent reliable shield which can completely protect democracy from its regression into some kind of totalitarianism. In the whole ideological edifice, freedom of the press is the excuse that keeps people from having to face and deal with this fact. If democracy is good, the media play a vital role. And when it goes bad, it's entirely the media's fault.

The Transparency of Evil

The Serbs in Belgrade know plenty about the ethnic cleansing of Albanians in Kosovo, just like they knew about what happened in Vukovar or Sarajevo. In that sense they don't differ from Croats, who are well aware of the fact that 400,000 Serbs were forced to leave Croatia over the last ten years; who are well aware of the 24,000 burned out homes; who know by name their own war criminals, with whom they live in peaceful coexistence without ever thinking of prosecuting them. Croats -- with some exceptions, albeit ones without any real significance for the political situation -- have never asked their Serb compatriots to return back, nor, for that matter, would Serbs ask the expelled Albanians.

If there is some lesson to be learned from the Yugoslav disaster, then it is about the full transparency of evil. Nothing has happened in these last ten years of war that hasn't been entirely predictable. All of it has been announced in advance. Why then such common outcry over the genocide in Kosovo now after the same practices have been followed in detail all over former Yugoslavia for almost a decade? Why wasn't there an outcry before the war ever started, when the man who is now the President of Croatia, Franjo Tudjman, published his book? Wherein he stated that genocide could have entirely positive consequences because it "leads to the ethnic homogenisation of a given nation and therefore ... to more harmony." A politician endorsing such an idea was financially, politically and later militarily backed by the countries now leading the NATO war campaign in Yugoslavia. Both Tudjman and Milosevic outlined the ethnic cleansing that was to take place in Bosnia before the war in Slovenia even got underway in 1991, and this, too, is a well-known fact. To those who ask why it is that today's Pol Pot of the Balkans, Slobodan Milosevic, was accepted until just yesterday as a reliable negotiating partner, we could reply with a more cynical question: What exactly was it that was wrong with Pol Pot? Considering it was the United States itself that protested against the Vietnamese military's intervention into the Red Khmer's Kampuchea.

We'll Bomb You Into Stone Innocence

"Only a stone is completely innocent," Hegel once wrote. If this makes any sense, it's in politics. Neither the Serbs nor the western democratic audience is innocent. The presumed innocence of both is only a retroactive effect of the depoliticisation that has taken place by means of the humanitarian framework. Humanitarianism today is not just a new opium for people which makes them blind to the political meaning of historical events. Its ideological use goes farther than that. The best place to see its full reach is in the attempt to find a juristically plausible justification for the military intervention in Yugoslavia, which according to international law is illegal. The argument has been advanced that "humanitarian intervention" is a matter of "custom and practice."

Now "customs and practices" are never universal. They vary according to different cultural identities. "Serbian genocide of Albanians" is a crime against humanity because it doesn't fit *European* cultural standards, and thus military intervention is called for. But "Turkish genocide of Kurds" is a peculiar Turkish custom which depending on our interests we can either support or sadly regret. This logic turns not only war into a particular custom, but democracy and justice themselves.

Instead of trying to understand the political logic of the break-up of Yugoslavia, the West only saw "people who have been fighting each other for centuries in the Balkans." War had long been a part of their cultural identity and thus there was no reason to intervene. One could recall the words of Marion Graefin Doenhoff, who in September 1991 wrote on the front page of "Die Zeit": "It would be crazy to intervene militarily in this Balkan chaos of one's own free will. It would be pure madness. . . . If they are determined to give vent to their Serbo-Croatian hatred, then one should leave them to it."

Far from being simply an excuse to further the cause of a military intervention, humanitarianism has actually hindered it. That is why military interventions in former Yugoslavia always come too late. They are late because they are following a humanitarian logic instead of a political one. This particularist logic doesn't prevent humanitarian catastrophes. It actually produces them, by masking political nonsense in humanitarian sense.

Kosovo today is the best example of this. Humanitarianism is the last refuge of universalists. It the symptom of a politics which has renounced its all of its real universal claims. The western democratic world, now represented by NATO, is not capable of coping with the deepest crises of the world political order. It lacks the global vision within which it would be possible to shape the politics of human rights in a way that would be valid for all. Thus the bombs on Yugoslavia are merely an ersatz for this ideological and political failure. They are dropped not to save universal human rights but to protect particular western customs, and what they damage most is the already existing world order, granted rather imperfect, but the only one we have, and the only one in which rights are possible. It obviously has to be changed, if not revolutionised. But the feeble political genius of NATO is the last thing that will bring about this change.

A collateral gain

If the face of the inevitable victory of democracy in the wake of communism's fall was ever visible, then it was the face of Vaclav Havel. Ten years ago, he stood for all of the universal values of democratic civilisation from Magna Carta to Frank Zappa. At that time he opened up the possibility of a world-wide reinvention of democracy, extending much further than the simple adaptation of the postcommunist countries to the liberal capitalism of the West. In his presidential address, given two years ago in Washington under the title "The Charms of Nato," Havel was enthusiastic about an America which would assume its responsibility for the whole world. It should do it a way that, as he put it, would "embody those premises that have a chance of saving our global civilisations . . . .. values that should be adopted today by all cultures, all nations, as a condition of their survival." And he welcomed of course the decision to include three Eastern European nations in NATO. These three countries, Poland, Hungary and Czech Republic, finally became members of the Western military alliance just before the bombs began falling on Belgrade. As a consequence, the greatest personification of democracy in recent history was also drafted. Today when the bombs are falling on Belgrade the brave soldier Havel obsequiously joins in. Do these bombs really represent that embodiment he expected "to save our global civilisation"? Should they, as an appropriate means of solving our political problems, really "be adopted today by all cultures, all nations, as a condition of their survival"? Can they really save the hope for democracy that he once personified -- the last vivid symbol of a moral liaison between the western world and the universal idea of democracy?

It seems that democracy has again lost its face. This in itself is not so bad. Moreover, this might be the only "collateral gain" from the damage done to democracy by the NATO military intervention in Yugoslavia. "Slobo, you Clinton!" marks the impossibility of true, universalist democracy within the existing political framework. That hope is gone along with its personification. But that failure is in fact our best hope. The only chance for real democracy is *beyond* the existing political framework. And the clearer that becomes, the better. The idea of democracy is again free floating and can be only be caught by our imagination. It is up to us to invent its future.

austria: boris buden engerthstrasse 51/10/16 a-1200 wien tel. (+43 1) 3336174

croatia: arkzin boris buden republike austrije 17/1 hr-10000 zagreb croatia tel. (+385 1) 3777866 fax. (+385 1) 3777867 e-mail: arkzin at ____________________________________________________________________________ _____ Michael Pollak ....................mpollak at York

More information about the lbo-talk mailing list