Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 2, No 2
17 January 2000

Sam Vaknin A   B A L K A N   E N C O U N T E R:
The Mind of Darkness

Sam Vaknin

"The Balkans," I say, "is the unconscious of the world." People stop to digest this metaphor and then they nod enthusiastically. It is here that the repressed memories of history, its traumas and fears and images reside. It is here that the psychodynamics of humanity - the tectonic clash between Rome and Byzantium, West and East, Judeo-Christianity and Islam - is still easily discernible.

We are seated at a New Year's dining table, loaded with a roasted pig and exotic salads. I, the Jew, only half foreign to this cradle of Slavonics. Four Serbs, five Macedonians (one half Bulgarian, a quarter Serbian). It is in the Balkans that all ethnic distinctions fail and it is here that they prevail anachronistically and atavistically. Contradiction and change - the only two fixtures of this tormented region.

The women of the Balkans: buried under provocative mask-like make up, retro hairstyles and too narrow dresses. The men: clad in sepia colours, old fashioned suits and turn of the century moustaches. In the background there is the crying game that is Balkanian music: liturgy, folk and elegy combined. The smells are heavy with musk-ular perfumes. It is like time travel. It is like revisiting one's childhood.

The Serbs - a family - are tall and ruggedly handsome. He was a soldier in the para-military Serb militias that sprang from the ashes of the Yugoslav National Army (JNA) in 1991. As the disintegration of the uneasy co-existence that once was Yugoslavia became more painfully evident, he and others seized the weapons from the JNA depots. In the administrative twilight zone that ensued they fought in JNA uniforms against a growing army of Croats (wearing initially the same uniforms) and Moslem Bosniaks. It was surrealistic, a Hieronymous Bosch nightmare.

"We were near victory in Bihać," he says, his voice a wistful admixture of melancholy and anger. "Politics" - an old spark in his eyes and, for a moment, I can see the erstwhile fighter. "All politics. We lost the war because of politics, because our leaders sold themselves to the West." This myth has a familiar ring to it, the ring of knife-stabbed backs and war. It is the ground being prepared for the next round - the war was nearly won had it not been for the traitors and their Western masters. The sound of clicking heels and marches and creaking gates of concentration camps.

And so? "Milošević should go" - he is adamant - "we paid enough." He leans back and lets fatigue take over.

His wife interjects: "He drives a milk truck. He collects milk from the villages and delivers it to Niš. The company he works for makes DM1000 daily - and his salary is DM80 monthly. How can you survive on DM80? I don't work. So, one has to steal."

"There is nowhere to steal from," I say. A moment of comic relief, bringing identical sad smiles to their faces.

"During the war (he means the Kosovo conflict), I drove the truck - it is a big truck, you see - and was bombed from behind by NATO planes. It was like that every day, for more than three months but I had to deliver the milk to town." In a matter of fact way he lights a cigarette, his hand steady.

"All the politicians benefited from these wars, except Arkan [the infamous militia military commander]. His son joined us and fought with us as our commander ..." - the sentence tapers off among blue clouds of cheap smoke.

"And what did NATO achieve?" asks his brother in law (who is married to a Macedonian and lives in Skopje).

"NATO went in for a year and is stuck for a decade in Bosnia."

"And that is the way it is going to be in Kosovo."

"They [the West] don't know what they want and they don't know how to achieve it, they have no plans, they stumble, only making matters worse among us. They are ignorant and ill-prepared."

I sound incredulous: "Do you seriously think that there would have been no wars without NATO? After all, when Yugoslavia started falling apart, the West (with the exception of Germany) tried to preserve its unity. America was very unhappy and discouraged the independence of the constituent states."

"Don't you believe it" - he is livid but not aggressive, there is more pain in his voice than threat. "Croatia would have never embarked on its war against us had it not been for the West. I was there, I know. And we were winning the war there when suddenly Belgrade ordered us to stop. The Commander-in-Chief of the whole front came to us, tears in his eyes, and said, 'I didn't give this order, I want you to know. It comes from above, from Belgrade, not from me.'"

"But couldn't all this have been settled differently, without bloodshed?" I wondered.

"Of course it could, without the meddling of the West and its two puppets in the region [Slobodan Milošević and Franjo Tuđman]." And then, somewhat incoherently, "They [the world] should have let us fight it out. Winner takes all the territory that's the only way to settle it. But Serbia has no friends anywhere in the world and we trust no one."

"And Kosovo?"

"Maybe that could not have been prevented," he concedes, "because Milošević regarded Kosovo as the cornerstone of his regime."

We talk about nothing else. The wounds are too fresh and too prominent to politely ignore. We enter the New Millennium with the blood dripping baggage of the old one. He fought for three years in Bosnia, in Sarajevo, near Banja Luka.

"Milošević determined our ultimate borders in Dayton," he spits the words bitterly, a look of bewilderment in his eyes. "Who gave him the mandate to represent us? Someone else should have gone there, like [Radovan] Karadžić, maybe..."

"But Milošević gave you weapons and food and supplies. Without him surely you could not have survived as long as you did?"

"No weapons," he protests. "Weapons we appropriated, we took them ourselves, from the JNA depots, he deserves no credit for that. Food, maybe ... But this does not give him the right to determine our borders and our future without as much as consulting us. He sold us to the West. Now look at the situation. I can't go back to my home in a town that was 100 percent Serb and now is 100 percent Moslem and the Moslems can't go back to their towns, which are now 100 percent Serb. And all towns - Serb and Moslem alike - are deserted ghost towns, where no one lives and nothing grows. Now I have to live in Serbia."

I don't ask him for details. I can't imagine him murdering in cold blood or raping. He has a good face, the wrinkles of many smiles and kindly eyes. When he laughs softly, they light up in black fire and his handshake is warm and firm. Instead I say, "And now it's Montenegro's turn. Should they declare independence?"

There is uneasy silence. The Serbs among us move in their chairs, glance warily at each other, as though co-ordinating an as yet unspoken answer. Finally: "There will be no war in Montenegro. The Serbs will not attack the Montenegrins - but there will be a civil war among the Montenegrins themselves, if they declare independence."

"Today," says the ex militiaman, "they are all better off than the Serbs in Serbia. The Slovenes and the Croats. Look what we achieved in a decade of 'Great Serbia' - shortly, only Belgrade will remain in the Federation, even Sandjak and Vojvodina will leave. The problem is that we have no leadership. There is no one to replace Milošević. Dragoslav Avramović [governor of the Central Bank in 1994 and opposition member] is way too old. Zoran Džindžić [a JNA general and opposition member] and Vuk Drašković we cannot trust..."

"Political whores," says someone, "Once with Milošević, once without..."

"...and who else is there? All the young, capable people are out and away, far, far away as they can get..."

Like in all the other countries of transition, they are adherents of the cult of youth. The belief that the old - old people, old culture, old institutions - have been so heavily corrupted that they must be discarded thoroughly and mercilessly. That all has to start over again. That only the young can cope with the timeless riddles that Balkanian sphinxes are in the habit of posing. That the young are the only bridge to the promised land of the zeitgeist of capitalism.

"And Macedonia?" I ask.

"Macedonia," the Serbs chorus around the dinner table, "Every village wants to become a country. Macedonia cannot survive on its own, it is too dependent on Serbia, it is too tiny."

"But only 17 percent of its trade is with Serbia," I correct them, as gently as I can. "Including Kosovo?" says one in great astonishment, "I see only Macedonian trucks in Serbia, it cannot be ."

"It cannot be," they all conclude, "Macedonia is nothing without Serbia."

As the clock strikes midnight, we kiss each other on wine flushed cheeks and shake hands solemnly. In the rest of the world, a New Millennium may have dawned. But in the Balkans it is perhaps the end of the beginning - but hardly the beginning of the end.

Dr Sam Vaknin, 17 January 2000

The author is General Manager of Capital Markets Institute Ltd, a consultancy firm with operations in Macedonia and Russia. He is an Economic Advisor to the Government of Macedonia.

DISCLAIMER: The views presented in this article represent only the personal opinions and judgements of the author.

Sam Vaknin's articles for Central Europe Review are archived here.

Sam Vaknin's Website is here.



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